Financial Analyst, Sasenarine Singh recently told this publication that Guyana’s failure to liberalize the telecoms sector is destructive to the national interest and prevents other competitors like Verizon Wireless from looking at Guyana as an investible opportunity.
While he acknowledged that successive governments failed to liberalize the sector for decades, Singh laid most of the blame at the feet of the four-year-old APNU+AFC government. He noted that the government had promised liberalization within its first 100 days in Office.
But, while Singh and other likeminded individuals feel that the APNU+AFC administration must take the heat for the hindered progress, the government is busy working to change the status quo. At least this is what Telecommunications Minister, Cathy Hughes told Guyana Standard.
During a recent exclusive interview, Hughes acknowledged that indeed, the liberalization of the sector is key. But she said that concerned citizens must understand that there are way more moving parts to the issue—most of which are out of her control.
In her bid to provide context to the debate, Hughes said that the concept of liberalization needs to be done in the right regulatory and legal environment.
Minister Hughes said, “…It needs to be clearly noted that the monopoly GTT has on the market, had expired in June 2010. The agreement said that it would enjoy such a monopoly for 20 years. But instead of improving the environment to promote the liberalization of the sector, the PPP avoided this and instead, opted to just renew the deal for another 20 years.”
Given the rapid pace at which the sector was advancing, Minister Hughes said it could only be considered unusual in anyone’s eyes at that time, and now, for the PPP to allow GTT to have a monopoly for another 20 years.
The official added, “…So it is a surprise that they would have done that…But as I said, in order for you to have liberalization, you need an enabling environment and since 2011, the PPP was saying they would do that and they did not. It was only until my Ministry was created in 2016, that the Telecoms Act was actually brought to the Parliament by this government and amended.”
But even though the requisite law was amended, the thorn that remained to be addressed was the contract that the PPP had renewed. This, Hughes said, is what has led to a round of “technical” negotiations between the Government and GTT.
The Telecommunications Minister said, “Because it was renewed, we have to honour the sanctity of the contract and come to an agreement with them as opposed to trying to do it in a confrontational way and then end up in court.”
With respect to these negotiations, Minister Hughes said that there are several agencies that influence the process while emphasizing that her Ministry is not directly responsible for it. She disclosed that the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) is one of the major players in these negotiations.
This news agency was able to independently confirm with officials at GRA that one issue of contention with GTT has been the issue of outstanding taxes which run into billions of dollars. Because the government wants to strike an arrangement with GTT, the telecommunications firm only wants to pay a small part of what it owes which dates back to the 90s.
Two other agencies involved in the discussions are the Public Utilities Commission and the Attorney General’s Chambers. As it relates to the latter, Minister Hughes reminded that there are several cases before the local courts that involve US-owned GTT and its competitor, Digicel, regarding the monopoly issue.
She said, “…So all these different agencies have an impact on the negotiations process and the challenge has been that some of the issues we are seeking to resolve existed since the early 90s. We have to deal with issues going back almost 30 years ago and the billions in taxes owed that you mentioned to me is one of them. But I will not say more than that because we have signed a Memorandum of Understanding which says we would work to settle these issues.”
The Telecommunications Minister said that had the PPP not renew the deal with GTT in 2011, Guyana would not be in this predicament. The improved regulatory and legislative framework would have been enough to bring the order that was needed, she added.
Even as she struggles to handle these matters, the Minister noted that efforts will continue to increase access to the internet by ordinary citizens.
In this regard, she reminded of her successes in creating over 140 ICT hubs and taking free internet to several hinterland communities, over 170 primary and secondary schools, over 30 tertiary institutions including the University of Guyana while adding that another 30 will be connected to free WIFI by December month-end.