The Battle Over VoIP
For weeks now the debate over the voice over internet protocol has been raging among users who've become accustomed to making cheap calls using the service. As we've reported, those users have been complaining that BTL is blocking access to services such as Vonage and Skype. BTL has denied those claims but there are many well moneyed and influential interests making an emphatic counterclaim. Their lobby and public carping became so loud that, as industry regulator, the PUC has had to get involved. The commission is within weeks of making a decision on the future of VoIP in Belize. Today they got an earful at a forum on "The opportunities and threats of VoIP in Belize." Here's what they heard.
Niall Gillett, Citizen’s Representative
"No one has the right to say how we can or can't communicate."
In short - that was the rallying cry heard loud and clear inside the Caracol room at the Radisson this morning. It was standing room only and though the topic was “high tech talk,” at times it had the air of a political rally. The forum would last for three hours and moderator and PUC’s Director of Consumer Affairs Danalyn Myvette set narrow parameters.
Danalyn Myvette, Director of Consumer Affairs - PUC
"The forum is structured so that we can hear from stakeholders on the opportunities and threats of VoIP. So primarily we will confine our discussions to that."
The Public Utilities Commission assembled a head table of legal and industry experts alongside representatives from the University of Belize, the Chamber of Commerce, and the general public. UB’s Kevin Harris sang the first line of what became a chorus.
Kevin Harris, UB
"We recommend that all blocks to VoIP services such as voice be removed immediately. VoIP can enhance Belize's educational services and economy and we should not be concerned about the consumer's use of their purchased bandwidth."
Michael Kong, ISP
"The issue before us today is if Belizeans will be allowed to enjoy the benefits of this telecommunications technology, commonly referred to as VoIP and will the laws and regulations be enacted and other steps taken to deprive us of this activity. The internet service providers of Belize believe we need to legalize VoIP services and allow ISPs to deliver their services to their customer. We recommend regulate, not terminate."
"We as citizens in this nation have a constitutional freedom and that is to associate, communicate, and correspond and that is what this whole thing is about. Regardless of the noise about packets and other excuses, this is all about being able to pay for an internet connection and using it to transmit and receive packets of data regardless of the type."
It didn’t end there because two hours later the ire of angry internet users suffering from VOIP withdrawal was unleashed when the mic was opened to the floor. Tom Vidrine from San Pedro led the charge. For him the only threat to VOIP is BTL.
Tom Vidrine, San Pedro
"My advice to BTL is to wake up: you aren't in the phone business, you are in the telecommunications business and you better grab this technology because if you don't, you won't realize that all those telephone poles and all those wires are already obsolete. My next piece of advice is to our fellow citizens. We as citizens, I understood we got our independence not too long ago but don't every now and again you just feel like somehow we as citizens are still the poor lowly subjects of some certain Englishman. Do we really have our freedom.”
George Hardy, Las Vegas Casino
"With the $1200 a month I pay for internet access, I don't think there should be restrictions. I wouldn't want somebody to rent me a car and tell me I can only put one passenger in it.”
David Schumer, UB
“We pay for water, what we do with the water, that's our prerogative. We do whatever we want. We talk about our power; we pay our power bill and what we do with that power is our business. It is a utility. Bandwidth is a utility; we pay for that and what we do with it is our business.”
Betty Gabourel-Cooper, Dangriga
"When will BTL ever learn? It seems the more we move ahead, the further we fall behind. I have always felt that I was the boss of my home or whatever went on in the confines of my home as long as I was not cooking drugs, or exploiting minors, making funny money, or holding anyone against his or her will, that it was my business and no one else's. Well suddenly I found out that the mighty BTL does not think so. People I think its time to put a stop to the blatant unfair and highhandedness we are subjected to by the BTL monopoly."
And speaking of a monopoly that is where the regulator comes in, right? Well the PUC couldn’t even get BTL to attend today’s forum.
“I have had calls from throughout this country, people sending me letters to represent them here today from all over the country of Belize. I have a couple hundred letters here for the PUC and lastly I beg you not to let this happen to our country and our community.”
"Madam from the utility commission, I am grateful to the Almighty God for those four letters over there and I’ll be very angry with you and your organization if you deprive this nation of the opportunity to use the technology that BTL did not create."
Ian Anderson, Caves Branch
"I would like to have the PUC not spend the next week, month, or six months determining what you are or aren't going to allow. I would ask the PUC, and Mr. Canton personally, to order BTL forthwith to stop hindering VoIP services until you decide what to do. What I want the PUC to say right now is, ‘stop,’ until we decide what to do and I think that has to be done.”
Betty Gabourel Cooper,
“The PUC what is your function if you cannot represent the people and the facts as they are. It does not take a rocket scientist to see what BTL is doing and what they intend to do and to the PUC, get off the fence and get doing the job right.”
And after three hours today’s audience doesn’t seem ready to accept any less from the PUC than for them to do their job.
And if you are wondering why BTL didn't attend, well a BTL representative declined comment but did tell us that the company has already made its position known to the PUC. PUC Chairman Dr. Gilbert Canton was unable for interviews this morning and Danalyn Mvvette declined our request for an interview. She told us it is a board decision, one which she says will be made in the coming weeks.
Musa Says Regulators Will Decide VoIP's Future
And while Myvette says it is a board decision, many observers believe that it ultimately a Cabinet decision and today we got the considered VoIP opinion of the boss of the Cabinet, the Prime Minister.
Rt. Hon. Said Musa,
“We believe it is a matter that should be fully canvassed and discussed. We recognize that the modern technology is such that the whole question of voice over internet is a part of technological life and we believe that BTL and the other providers, I believe they are using it, and so what we have to do is find a balanced way forward to bring down the cost of the use of telephone and other such devices in telecommunications and I think this matter is being analyzed by the people who are concerned with it and the PUC, I believe, is canvassing the views of the public with a view to coming up with a position.”
You say you are looking at ways to bring down the price of international calls. How can you do this with a monopoly which time and time again has proven that they are not ready to do that, they are here to make profits?
Rt. Hon. Said Musa,
“Whether it is a monopoly or not, the fact of the matter is that there is competition out there and people, through their creativity, have found a way to reduce costs for themselves so that is what they’ll have to deal with.”
But now that creativity is being limited or they are trying to limit that creativity.
Rt. Hon. Said Musa,
“Well there is another aspect to this thing that we should not ignore and that is that BTL pays its taxes and it can only pay taxes if they make a profit. Although it is based on the gross, it can only pay taxes if it is a going operation and a large part of their revenue, if you like, comes from international calls. What I am saying is we cannot allow say a foreign provider who pays nothing to the country of Belize to be charging people for a facility and the country does not benefit from that. That telecommunications and the satellite and all the airwaves and what not, that footprint belongs to Belize and Belizeans should benefit so they cannot be charging our people outside and we get nothing out if it. So it’s a complex issue that will have to be resolved, in fact it is affecting the entire region and the world at this time.”