The move by two major Caribbean mobile providers to block access to popular Internet-based telephony services has caused a furor. Their action has provoked the ire of consumers, caught the attention of Internet advocates and forced the engagement of national regulators. But perhaps most significantly, it has put a spotlight on the outmoded regulations that govern the actions of telecommunications providers.
On social media, call-in programmes and traditional media, consumers and advocates for an open Internet are struggling to understand why governments and regulators are not moving more swiftly and decisively in defense of their interests. Their outcry against blocking of hugely popular Voice over IP services is certainly understandable. Internet-based telephony apps such as Viber, Line, Skype and others play a major role in connecting and empowering people and businesses. The social and economic value they provide may be difficult to quantify but is impossible to ignore. That intrinsic value is precisely why this matter is deserving of greater scrutiny and attention.
The current debate points to complex issues much larger than specific mobile providers blocking specific applications today. The actions by the Digicel and Lime and the responses from regulators raise important questions.
How effective is current legislation in promoting market growth?
How relevant is current telecom legislation to supporting development of local economies?
How empowered are regulators to define and defend rights of consumers and to protect local and regional markets in a rapidly mutating telecoms landscape?
How do local regulators and local governments police the actions of regional service providers?
The current imbroglio also forces a re-examination of the foundations of Caribbean telecommunications economics. High call prices and exorbitant interconnection rates have yielded lucrative profits for the region’s service providers.
The global telecom industry’s transition to new models for profit-making is being triggered by competitive forces that do not fully apply to Caribbean markets.
The references to “unauthorised” providers and “illegal” services also raise some important question about the business models and business practices of regional telecom providers.
What are call termination rates into Caribbean countries, and inter-connection charges between providers within countries? How does those figures compare to international averages?
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