By Fay Simmons
Tribune Business Reporter
The Deputy Prime Minister yesterday said the service quality provided by the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) and Aliv is “unacceptable” with their failings “difficult to comprehend”.
Speaking at the Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority’s (URCA) digital transformation forum, Chester Cooper blasted both providers over the level and quality of communication services they offerl especially to Family Island residents.
“As far as BTC and ALIV is concerned, we believe that you must find more ways to collaborate within the framework of what is possible within URCA’s guidelines to improve service delivery, most importantly, in the Family Islands,” Mr Cooper, also minister of tourism, investments and aviation, said.
“As I mentioned earlier, I still find it unacceptable that for weeks on end we cannot have data connectivity in Staniel Cay and Black Point, some of the most active touristic destinations in The Bahamas. It is still difficult to comprehend that the Government owns 49 percent plus of each of these companies, yet, we find ourselves with the issues that we face.”
In fact, the Government has a 51.75 percent majority equity ownership interest in Aliv, although Board and management control resides with BISX-listed Cable Bahamas. The 49 percent interest is in BTC.
Mr Cooper, meanwhile, said the Government and Bahamian people are “unhappy shareholders”. He complained of dropped calls in the middle of negotiations with foreign investors and talking up The Bahamas’ “stable” information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure.
He added: “So let me say on behalf of the Government..... let me say on behalf of the 400,000 public shareholders, let me say that we are unhappy shareholders.
“It is most embarrassing, ladies and gentlemen, to have calls dropped. Just as I get on my stride convincing a foreign direct investor who happens to be a billionaire, invested in many places in the world, and just after I talk about a stable democracy, just after I talk about our political stable environment, the beauty of our country, then I talk about the stable ICT infrastructure and the call drops.”
The Exuma and Ragged Island MP added that it is “embarrassing” to be the part-owner of companies that do not provide sufficient service to the Family Islands and encouraged both providers to “deliver” on their commitments.
He said: “It is embarrassing to be a part owner of a company that cannot provide the service needed to children to do their virtual homework in the Family Islands. I’ve had this on my mind for a little while. So I thank URCA for giving me an opportunity to get this off my chest.
“As we are speaking with the Cats tech hub, the largest in Saudi Arabia, about the possibility of establishing a tech partnership and raving about the ICT infrastructure, the call drops. In our opinion, this has gone on long enough. We must deliver on the service we promised. You must deliver on your commitments under the laws of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas.”
Mr Cooper added that the Government is committed to the country’s digital transformation and,although it is not “simple work” and requires financial and technical resources, it can be accomplished with collaboration from all stakeholders.
He said: “It is crucial that even with different commercial and regulatory interests, all in the environment facilitate the advancement of our country. It is far from simple work, I concede. I concede that great resources, financial and technical, are required, but it’s nowhere near impossible.
“The Government is deeply committed to this vision, but it cannot do it alone. It cannot be alone in implementing change. The digital and utility regulatory environment has shifted from one of operating in silos to one of collaboration amongst stakeholders.”
Sameer Bhatti, BTC’s chief executive, said he would follow up with Mr Cooper on the dropped calls to determine the cause of disconnection but maintained that the carrier has “no outage at this time”.
He added: “I did not hear BTC called. Be that as it may, it was a question of a dropped call and what we don’t know is the nature of that. What drove that?
“We certainly don’t have an outage happening right now on the island. That was referenced, so is there something technological with the phone itself? Was there something different from the technology itself that we consider telecommunication?
“So we don’t know the nature. My action is to follow up with the DPM, understand the nature of and follow up, but I can assure you that there was no outage at this time.”
Mr Bhatti said receiving negative feedback “pushes us to raise our game”, and he was unsure if Mr Cooper was referencing a specific incident or “something bigger”.
The BTC chief added: “Government is the chief stakeholder in BTC, and therefore an investor in BTC. Like any citizen giving us feedback, that’s not positive, of course. It pushes us to raise our game.
“So I’d like to again have a conversation with the DPM to understand that dissatisfaction he’s referencing. Was it this specific moment that he referenced or is it something bigger?”
Mr Bhatti said BTC is a “proud partner” of the Government, adding that the company provides a range of services including broadband Internet, mobile phone services and WiFi in the parks.
He said: “But I’d also say we are in communication with multiple members of the Government on their services. We’re a proud partner of the Government for all the services we provide to them, and we have certainly focused on reliability, be it for CCTV programmes, be it for Wi Fi in the parks, be it for cell phone, or broadband with our fibre.
“So I’d like to have a follow up conversation just to understand the specifics, to see what the cause might have been.”