By Rhenae Nunez

It would be politically profitable for any government to implement Voice Over the Internet Protocol (VoIP) in Belize, but it would also be economically unfeasible for both the telecommunications industry and for the government which collects significantly in taxes from the industry.

Neither government has articulated this to the populace. In 2006, BTL began blocking access to Skype, Yahoo Messenger, Vonage and any other sites where free or cheaper calls could be made over the internet. Since then governments have been grappling unsuccessfully with this issue – neither willing to come clean to tell the people of Belize the truth.

Unlike other countries were VoIP is available to consumers, Belize has a very small population and a smaller market to afford the service. The simple truth is that offering VoIP will have a crippling effect on the industry.

Despite public fervor that no one can decide how we communicate, none from either side of this debate have come up with anything that would appease consumers who are clamoring for the service and the service providers.

Beyond the economic benefit to consumers, VoIP would provide for greater efficiency in transacting business in and out of Belize. Schools at all levels could do exchange programs while eliminating the expense and logistics of travelling. Customers could better communicate with their loved ones abroad for much cheaper.

Are Belizeans being held hostage to an obsolete system? And…would the answer to that question lie in the reason why Lord Ashcroft allegedly bought into Speednet? Opponents of the ban on VoIP rightly contended when BTL was still a monopoly that telecommunication technology has evolved to wireless technology and the poles, wires and cables that BTL has running all over the country are obsolete. The investment to leapfrog into wireless technology would be tremendous and the returns were not guaranteed, therefore BTL could not afford the competition of VoIP and the loss in profits that would result from it.

The only way BTL could maintain a profit was by charging the high rates for basic services and do its best to stave off competition. The company’s monopoly concession ended in 2002 however competition did not come until October of 2003 with the advent Intelco. The promise of competition and the excitement over lower telephone rates was short lived because Intelco was declared bankrupt by November of 2004.

Speednet (Smart), in the midst of the Intelco collapse obtained license approval to offer telecom service in August, 2003. While Intelco was going under, Smart was building. During that year interconnection and lease agreements were hammered out. By December of 2004 the interconnection testing with BTL was underway and by March of 2005 Smart launched its commercial operations.

Competition between Smart and BTL wasn’t anything like the contention that existed with Intelco and the reason for that was divulged in the House of Representatives in November of 2010. According to Prime Minister Barrow, former Leader of Opposition’s brother, Jaime Briceno transferred 58 shares of his shares in Speednet to a company named Heaver Holdings allegedly owned by Lord Ashcroft for a grand sum of Six Million and Ninety Thousand Dollars.

With Ashcroft purportedly in the wireless communication business as was indicated by the Prime Minister, it raises some skepticism about the takeover of BTL. Questions persist about the motive behind the takeover and the sudden acrimony ensued between Barrow and his former major client, Lord Ashcroft. How real is it? Perhaps we may never know but some glaring elements in this saga raise some disturbing issues and questions.

Did Barrow do his former and current client a favor by taking the obsolete BTL off his hands or were the people of Belize played by both Ashcroft and Barrow? Ashcroft’s British Caribbean Bank (formerly Belize Bank) remains a client of Barrow and Williams law firm which the Prime Minister admitted that he does draw a portion of the profits earned by his company. Although Barrow portrays contempt for Lord Ashcroft in front of the Belizean people, he continues to do business with the Lord.

In the only meeting held with the press in October of 2010 following the original takeover of BTL in August of 2009, board chairman Nestor “Net” Vasquez said that the company was hemorrhaging money and as the months progress the company would lose more in earnings.

Vasquez’s assertion may have been substantiated by the amount of money that the new owners of BTL have had to raise for the company. BTL had prior to the original takeover gotten a loan from Belize Bank and since it has been in the hands of the Government of Belize has gotten BZD $50million from Social Security Board, $20 million from the Central Bank and recently $16 million which was borrowed from the Heritage Bank. A total of $86 million dollars has been raised locally to invest in BTL which Barrow and his board of management claimed was now making huge profits. It begs the question - why the need for additional taxpayer money?

In November last year, Barrow spoke circumspectly about VoIP, saying that it will come soon but at a cost since BTL’s profit for this year will go down due to consumers taking advantage of the 1010-199 access code which affords consumers cheaper long distance rates.

As recent as Monday, February 13, Barrow was once again dangling VoIP in front of consumers. This time he claimed that a working group headed by Chairman Net Vasquez and comprising of board members and some staff are working on a proposal that will “see a limited implementation of VoIP in two phases.” What Barrow meant in this latest spin is anyone’s guess since the Prime Minister has a penchant for speaking in tongues – literally.

It will come “initially with respect to fixed lines and thereafter, of course, with respect to cell phones,” Barrow told Channel 7’s Jules Vasquez. The gaffe was promptly noted by Vasquez who corrected that the VoIP is an internet protocol – but whether the Prime Minister’s mistake was genuine…I’m not too certain – it sounding more like the PM was BS-ing the Belizean people again.

Truth be told, the Belizean telecommunications industry cannot afford to offer consumers VoIP. It has less to do with the investment to do so and more to do with the negative economic implications of doing so. Rather than dangling this in front of the Belizean people just to win re-elections – it is time that the Barrow administration comes clean about the many secrets of BTL, the takeovers, VoIP and the financial status of the company whatever else.

The Independent