PUC hands tied when dealing with BTL monopoly

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 11, No. 6            February 8, 2001

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Finally, there are some answers, but they are not inspiring. The San Pedro Sun learned upon contacting the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the Director of Telecommunications this week, that in essence, until this monopoly ends with Belize Telecommunications Limited, there is almost nothing, short of a lawsuit backed up by substantial evidence, than anyone can do to dispute the non-action and lack of basic service of this utility.

    Chairman of the PUC, Gilly Canton, explained that the PUC was only legislated in 1999 and "setting up office" at the tail end of the privatization of Belize Electricity Limited. "We are still working on reinforcing our technical capacity," he replied when asked about their role in defense of the private consumer. He continued that, essentially they are compiling competent people with some background in economics, engineering and law to better enable the PUC to deal with setting rates and establishing standards for quality of service. He further explained that time frames for the commissioner's lengths of appointments are staggered. This is to ensure that the commission stays strong and there are not several people missing at any one time when appointments expire.

    Six of the seven commission appointments have been made by the governor general and approved by the prime minister and the leader of the opposition party. They are Mary Martinez, Ilona Smiling, Santiago Mendosa, Harry Nobly and Al Chanona led by the Chairman Gilly Canton. The commission has so far been involved in the legislative processes of both the Electricity Act and the new Water Industry Bill that just recently passed the House.

    In response to problems associated with Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL) it was learned that this monopoly's license is very, very exclusive and is difficult to challenge. (This statement was backed up by the Director of Telecommunications.) The PUC chairman informed that only when the monopoly on telecommunications ends, will the PUC have a chance to change this legislation. The Telecommunications Act was established before the PUC, subsequently this act will need to be amended before they (or consumers) have any control or say in matters on this subject.

    Regarding BEL, the chairman replied that rates are the PUC's number one challenge, especially with the rising cost of fuel prices worldwide. With reference to the Chalillo Dam, he explained that their commission's responsibility would be to ensure that rates do not go any higher because of this dam. He explained that Mexico's prices for electricity continue to rise and therefore they are investigating all alternative sources of power generation as well.

    The PUC is directly involved in the economic regulation of the new Water Utility Bill which was recently passed by the House. This controversial bill awaits acceptance of the Senate before being enacted and is being disputed by several organizations. In reference to the privatization of this utility, the chairman explained that whoever the purchaser is will only be involved with areas of service, the same as with the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) currently in control. He further informed that resource management would still lie in the hands of the Government of Belize. While hearing the government would continue to maintain control of this natural resource is in one way comforting but it should be mentioned that as in almost all pieces of legislation, "Minister's discretion" is a clause, which in reality, makes any legislation a guideline instead of absolute law.

   The PUC chairman stated that an office with personnel to receive complaints and concerns is being established and should be ready by March. In the meantime, anyone having concerns or questions for the PUC may e-mail puc@btl.net.

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