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A SMART Choice For GOB or the Briceno’s?

Posted By: Marty

A SMART Choice For GOB or the Briceno’s? - 08/19/21 10:37 AM

And another outlandish move the government has been accused of is moving from the national telecoms provider, BTL, to Smart. This would not only be a huge loss for a company that is already in the teeth of a financial dilemma, but would also seem like a clear act of nepotism since Smart is owned by the PM's relatives.

We put the question to the PM today and he, with a deep sigh, clarified that the government is not pulling out of BTL, rather Smart has created a more effective package for the employees of the Ministry of Labor and Rural Transformation.

Hon. John Briceno, Prime Minister
"(sigh) I will not go down the road of the former prime minister so I will just answer your question. But there is no policy that government is moving from one company to the next company. The issue is simply a matter of economics. The CEO from rural development is saying they had these 30 dollar plan for the workers who are out in the field and they were complaining that their 30 dollars go up quickly and they met with BTL and they met with Smart and Smart gave them a better deal and that's why Smart decided to go down that route. I can tell you that there's not a single person in government or outside of government that can say that I have called any one of them to move their business from BTL to Smart."

Jules Vasquez:
"But isn't it true that Smart was allowed to go into the Cabinet room and make a pitch for its various services?"

Hon. John Briceno, Prime Minister
"Well it is true that both companies were invited to make a pitch for the service they've prepared because there is a lot dissatisfaction with the level of customer service that BTL provides and so both companies were invited to come in with the CEO's, not with the ministers, I wasn't even aware that that was gong to take place until after the fact."

Reporter:
"Mr. Briceno, but would you concede that BTL being government owned, that government could have made concessions to make packages more attractive for those who were interested in switching out the services as you said earlier."

Hon. John Briceno, Prime Minister
"I will concede nothing simply because as it is right not, the government is propping up BTL for millions of dollars, if it wasn't for government, BTL would have gone bankrupt, because ethe amount of monies we have paid for BTL which is almost 600 million dollars not counting interest, BTL will never be able to pay that back, how much did they learn last year? You're the BTL expert."

Jules Vasquez:
"1.3 million dollars."

Hon. John Briceno, Prime Minister
"1.3 million dollars, you think they will pay 600 million dollars and not pay interest? As it is right now, BTL owes the government millions of dollars in taxes, millions of dollars in dividends. We have been propping up this company, this company also have to become more efficient and more effective and more driven by customer service. Not because they are a monopoly, or owned by the government, they can charge what they want because then the private sector is going to leave them to."

"Maybe this is a wake up call for BTL to get their act together because the government is not moving. We still have millions of dollars of business with BTL."

A release from Smart also confirmed the PM's comments. They say they are aware of a directive from GOB for Ministries to institute cost saving measures, and as such, GOB had accepted the best offer for the provision of services. The release continues, quote, "As a result, BTL and Smart can now equally pursue government business by way of tenders. Proposals from Smart have allowed the Ministries for the first time in many years to compare alternative proposals that result in considerable savings on their telecom bills, something that Smart's Corporate clients can attest to." End quote.

They also note that the government must represent all personS in Belize equally and that they should not be biased towards BTL at the expense of Smart. And since GOB is the largest consumers of telecommunication services in the country, if it were to be biased against Smart, it would, quote, "distort the telecommunications market and reduce the ability of Smart to compete fairly." End quote.

Meanwhile, in a release from BTL's Belize Communications Workers Union, they are expressing their discontent at this move. They claim it is three ministries who are switching, including the PM's own ministry of finance, plus the ministry of rural development, labor and local government, and the ministry of foreign affairs. What the BCWU classifies as GOB's sudden and unjustified termination of phone lines, cellphone plans, and the non-renewal of software licenses which they say has resulted in losses of 3 million dollars to the company's revenues.

Their release also says, quote, The BCWU fails to identify any logical reasoning behind these changes made by the ministry personnel. Quote, "Therefore, we are forced to deduce that this act is a complete abuse of power with direct nepotistic validation to Speednet Communications Limited, an entity with which several major Government elements has known ties. This act takes money directly out of the public purse and places it in the hands of private citizens whose direct link to the government cannot be overlooked." End quote.

They're now asking Briceno's Cabinet to take immediate action to rectify this behavior and for the PM to mandate that the services that were terminated and the services not renewed, to be reinstated immediately.

The note that the revenue loss will have adverse effects of the SSB, Central Bank, and ultimately, the people of Belize.

Channel 7


PM Comments on Rural Development Smart Cell Phone Plans

Last week it made headlines that B.T.L. cellular accounts assigned to personnel within the Ministry of Rural Transformation, Community Development, Labour and Local Government were switched to Smart mobile accounts. In response, the Public Service Union issued a release stating that the decision is contrary to the government’s best interest and appears to be a conflict of interest.  C.E.O. Valentino Shal said on social media that the switch came because Smart was cheaper.  The Briceño Administration came under further criticism on Tuesday when the United Democratic Party criticized the move as, “nepotistic and hypocritical.”  Today, PM Briceño had his chance to explain the move.

Prime Minister John Briceño

“There is no policy that the government is moving from one company to the next company. The issue is simply a matter of economics. The C.E.O. from Rural Development saying that they have these thirty dollars plans for their workers that are out in the field. And they were complaining that their thirty dollars are up quickly. And they met with BTL and they met with Smart, and Smart gave them a better deal and that is why they decided to go down that route. But, I can tell you that there is not a single person in government or outside of government that can say I have called anyone of them to move their business from B.T.L. to Smart.”

Reporter

“But, isn’t it true that smart was allowed to go into the Cabinet room to make a pitch for its various services?”

Prime Minister John Briceño

“Well, it is true that both companies were invited to make a pitch for the services, because there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the delivery of service, customer service from B.T.L. providers.  And so, both companies were invited to come in with the C.E.O.s, not with the ministers. I wasn’t even aware that that was going to take place until after the fact.”

PM says G.O.B. “propping up” B.T.L.

PM Briceño says the Government of Belize is still giving millions of dollars in business to B.T.L. and that the switch to Smart of some government phone plans should be a “wake-up” call.

Prime Minister John Briceño

“As it is right, now the government is propping up B.T.L. to the tune of millions of dollars. Just because of government, B.T.L. clearly would have gone bankrupt. And, the amount of money we have paid for B.T.L., which is almost six hundred million dollars, not counting interest, B.T.L. will never be able to pay that back. How much did they earn last year? One point three million dollars. You think they wah pay six hundred  million dollars and not count interest? As it is, B.T.L. owes the Government millions of dollars in taxes, millions of dollars in dividends, we have been propping up this company. This company also has to become more efficient and effective and driven by customer service. Not because they are owed by the government they can just go and charge anything they want. The private sector is going to leave them to. Maybe it is a wakeup call B.T.L. to B.T.L. that they have to fix up their service, that they have to do better. They just can’t sit on their laurels and continue to fleece the government, because you and I, all of us, are paying for that.”

We reached out to Chairman of B.T.L. Mark Lizarraga who declined to comment, telling us that he is out of office on leave and will be back next week.

Smart Responds to Controversy over Phone Plans for G.O.B.

Smart Belize has responded to reports about the government contracts. In a press release issued today, Smart says it is not aware of any directives given by G.O.B. to switch their telecom services to Smart because the company is owned and operated by relatives of the Prime Minister.  However, Smart says they do know of a directive from G.O.B. for the various ministries to institute cost-saving measures.  According to Smart, as a result, both B.T.L. and Smart can now equally pursue government business by way of tender.  Smart says their proposals, for the first time in many years, have allowed the ministries to compare alternative proposals that result in considerable savings.  Smart says this new approach helps G.O.B. to lower costs and avoid waste. According to the release, Smart seeks a level playing field, something they say has been grossly absent in the past when it comes to G.O.B. business. Smart noted the company employs one hundred and fifty Belizeans. They further note the government is entitled to secure the best telecommunication services, as well as expect B.T.L. to be efficiently run.

Channel 5

Posted By: Marty

Re: A SMART Choice For GOB or the Briceno’s? - 08/25/21 10:45 AM

BTL Chairman Let’s It Slide, Won’t Fight

And while Kyron and his mother are continuing that fight, BTL has laid down its sword in the battle to regain the GOB contracts that have moved to Smart - and the company did so before the battle even really began.
While the Belize Communications Workers Union has issued a strongly worded press release condemning the government for the SMART switchover and detailing the damaging effects it will have on the company and the wider public, the chairman has taken a more moderate position.

Though BCWU called out the government and demanded that they end their contracts with Smart and move back to BTL, Mark Lizarraga has accepted the loss and said next time, they just have to try harder.

He showed no signs of indignation about GOB shifting to their competitors who are owned by the prime minister's family - despite the wider public raging at what many feel is an act of nepotism. Rather, the chairman simply gave a resigned statement that the company has not been competitive enough and it is something they will have to fix moving forward.

Mark Lizarraga, Chairman, BTL
"We knew from day one that BTL was heavy, we knew from day one that we had to make some changes to put the company on profitable footing. And we also knew that we had to become nimble, more responsive to our clients needs, we had to become more competitive. And our staff after consultations with the union and the whole staff body understood that. I can understand their passion, obviously, I have a bias now, that's obvious, I would want to see all the business come to us, of course, but I started by saying we are operating in a competitive arena and we have to be prepared even though we are an essential services provider to compete with other providers in the area."

"I think we have to make sure we do everything possible to convince those people who procure on behalf of government- by the way I must say the businessman in me understand what they're going through. They have been asked to operate with a significant cut to their budgets, they've gotten a 20% cut to their budget, the businessperson in me understand they have to cut their expenses as well to survive. As the chairman I would love for all their business to come to BTL, but I think that we cannot expect to be entitled to it, I think we have to fight for it, I think we have to earn their business."

"I don't know if I can say if the Prime Minister is biased towards, Smart, I won't agree with you there and I don't even know if the Prime minister is a shareholder of that company. The prime minister is the head of government and we just got an agreement from government to help BTL expand its services."

"I think it's fair game, is it a game that I like? Obviously not, like I said, I have my own biases, I want to generate as much business as I could for BTL, and I want to see this company as all our players, all the team members, all our board members want to see this company as profitable because that is our mandate but we live in a reality where we have to compete. We aren't like BEL or WASA or the other public utilities that they're the only game in town, no, we operate in a competitive environment."

But the chairman said that while their revenue is seeing losses - he didn't have the on hand - but claims they have still exceeded their projected profit.

Mark Lizarraga, Chairman, BTL
"Despite of those accounts that we have lost, we are still ahead of target for this year. We are still performing better. We will perform better this year than we did last year and that is because all of us in this organization are committed to making the company profitable and competitive. So, are going to have to wheel and turn again? sure. we have to look at those cases. We will make an absolute study with the best information that we can gather and get and see how we can fight that for that business and get it back."

"I think it's a fair statement to say that the previous government, while they declared a lot of dividends etc., they weren't paying it. It's no secret that we have huge debts, but we are meeting those obligations, something that wasn't happening before. So we are being responsible. We realize that the government cannot continue to keep us propped up, so to speak. We realize that we have to be good corporate citizens and we are being good corporate citizens and we will continue to be good corporate citizens. You have that commitment from this board and from this team. So that's the reassurance that I can give you. Yes, we would have hope that we would get all the business, but again, we are operating in a competitive environment and we have to be competitive. That's the nature of business."

Was BTL Given A Fair Chance To Compete Against SMART?

But was there any discussion to try to stop GOB from moving to Smart? Well, the chairman said they made two presentations, though he didn't have many details due to being on personal leave. But whether there were intense negotiations, well, that is still unclear.

Mark Lizarraga, Chairman, BTL
"BTL made a presentation to Cabinet to bring it up to date as to where we were, what we were doing and what we could do to grow with them to help them. And then I believe that BTL had a presentation a the CEO level where they made, basically we introduced ourselves to the CEO caucus and told them what our services were, etc, I'm not aware of the details of that but yes we did have two presentations, one to Cabinet, and one to the CEO caucus."

Courtney Menzies:
"But there was no sort of negotiation for a- because they were complaining, the ministry of labor, they were complaining of the data packages that's why they wanted to move to Smart, was there no negotiation to see okay, I mean it's the government versus the national provided, no negotiation to see can we come to a compromise?"

Mark Lizarraga, Chairman, BTL
"I'm not aware of the details of those but we have people in BTL who are in charge of liasing with the customers and apparently what we gave them was not to their liking. Obviously if we had made them an offer that was palatable or more appeasing to them they would have taken it so we have to go back to the drawing board and we would have to see. And I'm not at those meetings yet, I'm just back in office. But it help us, it challenges us and it helps us to take a look at ourselves again to see where we can improve and how we can become more aggressive and more competitive."

Did SMART Have An Inside Track?

And the chairman isn't suspecting any under the table type deals - like insider training - to have taken place. While he didn't know what Smart's bid was, he accepted that BTL's prices may be too expensive and sympathized with the government - who is working on a reduced budget. Still, he hopes that things were done above board.

Mark Lizarraga, Chairman, BTL
"Well if there is insider trading it would have to be from BTL staff and I think that would be shortsighted on any staff member here, because we have the commitment. They know what security they have working for BTL. Like I said we have excellent rapport with the unions, with our staff and they are all committed and dedicated to BTL. I think that might be overstretching it. I think at this stage today what I can say today is that we know that we are a little expensive, perhaps in certain areas. We know that we are a little heavy, we've been working on that - we've been able to cut 24 million dollars in expenses and renegotiate our cost down by 24 million dollars. That is substantial you know, when we've lost 29 million dollars in sales and yet we are still turning a profit and that could not be done without the support, the buy-in from our staff members. So everybody in the organization has contributed to improving our inefficiency and it will continue."

Reporter
"You know then that your services are more expensive than SMART?"

Mark Lizarraga, Chairman, BTL
"No, I'm saying that if they have gone to SMART it's possible that for those accounts that we have migrated to SMART, that SMART may have given them a better deal than we have. I just hope that SMART is not giving them below cost, I mean that's possible too. You have things that is called loss leaders in business, where I give you something very cheap because I am trying to get some of your business. That's possible as well. I don't know. But I am saying that question you should pose to those departments that migrated and ask them."

BTL Says It Will Compete

But if BTL's prices are higher than Smart's, then what's stopping the government from migrating more of their contracts over to the other company? Well, chairman Lizarraga said that they're not going to sit by and let that happen. His commitment is that they will continue to improve BTL's services so that they can hold on to the remainder of the contracts.

Mark Lizarraga, Chairman, BTL
"Government is our largest customer, so that question is something that we would have to seriously look at, but I can assure you that we do not intend to sit by and watch business be eroded. Like I said we are committed to becoming competitive, we are committed to becoming more efficient, we are committed to becoming more responsive to our customers' needs and BTL will become a leaner and nimbler company."

Reporter
"How do you ensure that you do not lose contracts going forward?"

Mark Lizarraga, Chairman, BTL
"By becoming efficient, by becoming responsive, by getting to know our customers their needs and trying to see where we can save them money. We have committed a team to that. We are going to go in there and sit down and talk to customers. We have to get to know our customers, see what their needs are, see if we can help them to save, how we can help them to save and this includes government, especially the government."

BTL Still Partners With GOB

But regardless of their differences, Lizarraga emphasized the BTL and GOB are still partners and are currently working on various projects. He also noted that it is because of meeting and exceeding their profit margins that they are able to undertake these new initiatives, such as providing services to underserved communities.

Mark Lizarraga, Chairman, BTL
"GOB and BTL will be partnering in fulfilling its mandate under Plan Belize to expand services to under-served communities. The primary purpose of this investment some 10 million dollars will be invested. It's to bring connectivity to many under-served areas, especially in these Covid times. We want everybody to be connected. These are investments were under normal business as usual scenarios, these investments would not have been made, because they would not have been economically viable or the payback period would be too long, but in partnering with the government of Belize we would make this happen. So we are very much in partnership with the government of Belize as well as a part of this partnership we have launched our Edudata plan. Edudate is going to provide mobile data to teachers and students at a 50% discount. As well I remind you that BTL already provides internet free of cost up to 130megs to some 300 schools countrywide. This year the board approved once again 25 new scholarships for students. In the past we have cooperated and assisted healthcare workers with some goodwill packages that gave them data, voice and SMS plans to the value of $100,000, if I am not mistaken and we are looking again to see if we can continue to support these people in this way. We assisted the government with their mobile pays program which disbursed some 19 million dollars to over 20,000 needy Belizeans at a cost to this company of over $400,000. And we did that partnering with GOB."

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