Chairman of the Caribbean Association of National Telecommunication Organizations (CANTO), Julian Wilkins, is concerned about the impact that the introduction of strict net neutrality regulation and management of the Universal Service Fund as being proposed in the draft Electronic Communications Bill would have on the five member states of the Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (ECTEL).
Wilkins placed on record his concern during the recently held CANTO conference in Puerto Rico in which he expressed 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 islands.
Net neutrality, network neutrality, Internet neutrality, or net equality is a principle that was coined by Columbia University media law professor, Tim Wu, in 2003.
It emphasises that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet the same, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.
In an interview during the 6-day Conference held during the first week of this month, Wilkins expressed the view that, “it (net neutrality) is actually a US solution to a US problem.
“In the US you have your Google, Facebook, (and) Skype, they are the content providers…and they are driving net neutrality. You would find that the operators there, the ones who provide the pipes (such as) Verizon, Tmobile and AT&T are very concerned with strict net neutrality rules. So I find it strange that in some parts of the Caribbean (we) are trying to adopt those same US rules,” he remarked.
Speaking on the introduction of net neutrality during a recently held media clinic at the NTRC headquarters along the Maurice Bishop Highway at Grand Anse, St. George, ECTEL Managing Director, Embert Charles said the decision to introduce net neutrality was taken following a 2013 consultation.
Charles noted that while the new regulation would ensure that consumers would be granted “equal and fair opportunity to use the internet without any kind of intervention or interference whatsoever,” there are conditions that will determine the interception of communication based on law which empowers “only regulators or law enforcement agencies the authority and not the service providers.”
However, the CANTO Chairman, who is also the Director of Telecoms Public Policy – Digicel Group said “as operators we have a challenge with that.
“I would argue that, for example, if you take a selfie you may not care if that selfie takes a couple of seconds to get to its destination…but if I am looking at data that’s involving let’s say, telemedicine and a doctor is operating on a patient, he’s remote, he’s using a service provided by the operators (and) that’s a special service. I would suggest to you that the data for the telemedicine is of more importance than the selfie. So when I hear this argument that all bits must be treated equally I think we need to be careful of that,” Wilkins said.
The telecommunications expert holds the view that the hotly debated topic of “net neutrality is a global issue (and that) the Caribbean region has much to gain by adopting a more considered approach as there is time to see where the various debates lead.”
“We have to think about what is the best way forward so we really depend on our governments and our regulators to put the right environments in place,” Wilkins added.
Another proposal in the new legislation is 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 Telecoms 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.
Grenada has disbursed less than 1%, St Lucia (4%), Dominica (15%) and St Kitts & Nevis (15.5%).
The debate on how to regulate over-the-top players (OTTs) was another area of contention during the CANTO Conference, with the operators maintaining that OTT providers should pay for licenses and pay taxes if they wish to compete head on.
The Internet was developed and left open so that individuals could use it to develop their creativity and originality. Examples of these include Google, Amazon, and Facebook to name a few.
Wilkins said “OTTs must recognise that the internet is not a “free for all… that same rules should apply for the same services,” adding that the priority should be to produce transparent regulations that prioritise investment.
He added that “this is one of the sought of contentious issues for a number of years now with operators, regulators and consumers because naturally consumers are concerned about the price of making a call, using data and then we have these over the top players (OTT) like Viber where you can make your calls free of charge”.
“Right now you’ve got Cable and Wireless (and) Digicel competing against the OTTs (such as) Vibers, Skype, Facebook who basically don’t have a license (and) don’t pay any taxes to the Caribbean unlike Cable and Wireless and Digicel,” he said.
In essence, he argued that the new legislation seeks to increase the powers of the National Telecommunications Regulators Commission (NTRCs) in individual ECTEL member states.
CANTO, founded in 1984 is 130 members strong and seeks to establish a forum through which Caribbean Telecommunication Organisations may exchange information and expertise pertaining to the telecommunications field, generate inputs for orderly growth of the sectors, formulate policy and consider matters of mutual interest to its members.