Israel , India and Ireland

Net neutrality, universal services fund spark debate among Caribbean telcos

Bnamericas Published: Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Management of universal access funds and net neutrality are two of the main components of a controversial proposed telecommunications bill for the eastern Caribbean nations that is likely to generate heated debate at this year's Caribbean telecoms association (Canto) conference, taking place in Puerto Rico this week.

Canto chairman Julian Wilkins, who is also head of public policy at Irish-owned mobile operator Digicel, told BNamericas that this year's conference would be much more regulation-centric than in previous years, when it has been more technology oriented.

Canto is particularly concerned about a communications bill being proposed by The Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (Ectel), which proposes to increase the powers of the central body that oversees the individual regulators (NTRCs) in Grenada, Dominica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Lucia and St Kitts & Nevis.


Ectel wants to increase the contribution that telcos make to the universal services fund (USF) from 1% of their annual income to 2% over the next four years, as well as creating a reserve fund.

However, according to Wilkins, the Ectel nations have not demonstrated that they are investing the funds they have already collected over the last seven years since the USF was set up in telecoms infrastructure and have thus not justified the need for additional funding.

"We need to keep a cool head when talking to these regulators, but we need to point out that they're just not spending the money. And now they want to put the tax up. This takes the biscuit," Wilkins said.

According to the executive, only St Vincent and the Grenadines has made any progress over the seven years since the funds were set up, investing 76% of the total collected. Meanwhile, Grenada has disbursed less than 1%, St Lucia (4%), Dominica (15%) and St Kitts & Nevis (15.5%).


The other issue the new legislation would seek to implement is strict net neutrality regulation, which would require network operators to treat all internet traffic the same.

Wilkins fears that Ectel is following the lead of the United States, which introduced net neutrality regulation in June last year, but without properly thinking the rules through and whether they should be applied to small Caribbean island nations.

Net neutrality is a hotly debated topic all over the world and "the Caribbean region has much to gain by adopting a more considered approach as there is time to see where the various debates lead," Wilkins said.

"A more sophisticated response is required - one which intervenes no more than it needs to and allows sufficient flexibility for the markets to respond to changing services and consumer demands," he said.


The debate of how to regulate over-the-top players will return this year, with the operators likely to claim that OTT providers should pay for licenses and pay taxes if they wish to compete head on.

"OTTs must recognize that the internet is not a "free for all... that same rules should apply for the same services," Wilkins said, adding that the priority should be to produce transparent regulations that prioritize investment.

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