|Public Utilities Commission (PUC) in Belize City, where a large crowd gathered at the Radisson Hotel to voice frustration and concern over Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL) disrupting or completely blocking the use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).|
|Tom Vidrine, President of the Ambergris Caye Chamber of Commerce, tells members of the Public Utilities Commission that the blockage of VoIP by BTL is negatively impacting the country of Belize. |
It was standing room only during a public forum last week hosted by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) in Belize City. The crowd gathered at the Radisson Hotel to voice frustration and concern over Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL) disrupting or completely blocking the use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). This technology allows users who subscribe to a high speed Internet connection to make inexpensive or nearly free telephone calls using services such as Vonage, Skype, Packet8, Verizonspeak, Tomatovine and others.
Despite the outcry before, during and after the forum, BTL continues to block VoIP. It is not known when the PUC will make a recommendation. The PUC stated that it intends to make a decision soon. The PUC only has the authority to make a recommendation that is not legally binding. Therefore, BTL would still be able to continue it’s actions until some legal action is taken against the phone company. Ultimately, it may take a ruling by the Supreme Court to force the company to comply. Fundamentally, the PUC is an appointed body primarily representing the interests of industry, not consumers.
The forum included a panel of presenters to provide different perspectives of VoIP. BTL and Speednet were both invited to attend, but neither participated in the forum. Repeated calls to BTL has yet to provide a comment on the issue. The panelists who did participate represented a wide cross-section of stakeholders. They were Kevin Harris for the University of Belize; Michael Kong for the Internet Service Providers (ISP’s); Israel “Pie” Marin for the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI); and Niall Gillett, technology consultant and chairman of Burrell Boom Village, representing Belizean citizens.
After the formal presentations, members of the audience were given an opportunity to present comments to the PUC. Tom Vidrine, President of the Ambergris Caye Chamber of Commerce was among the first to speak. He presented the PUC with over a hundred letters opposing the blocking of VoIP. His main points included recommending that BTL should use VOIP technology to its advantage and become a leader instead of continuing its current practice of blocking such calls and “being viewed as a tyrant.” He stressed that the use of VoIP on BTL is not free since consumers buy DSL service to use it. He also stressed that BTL must learn that they “are not in the phone business, but the communication business” and until they realize that, may help degrade Belize to a 4th world country.
Others during the panel presentation compared BTLs actions to those by other countries. Other countries that block VoIP include North Korea, China, some monarchies and dictatorships in the Middle East, “and Belize.” The United States, along with most countries in Central America, the Caribbean and Europe, allow VoIP communications.
Niall Gillett, technology consultant and chairman of Burrell Boom Village, represented Belizean citizens during the forum. He interpreted BTL’s action as a violation of the Belize Constitution citing Section 12 (1) “Except with his own consent, a person shall not be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference, freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference (whether the communication be to the public generally or to any person or class of persons) and freedom from interference with his correspondence.” Gillett’s opinion is that BTL’s blocking of VoIP communications is a violation of this constitutional right of citizens.
Harris said that not only is BTL’s blocking of VoIP, hampering learning via Internet, it is also hampering the country’s overall economic growth. He said that VoIP is a necessary tool for e-learning and online education. Because of the nature of VoIP, it enables users to take advantage of voice, data and video technology, while affording them cheaper rates and more effective communications, he added.
Many in the audience and on the panel recommended that all VoIP blocks be removed “immediately.” Technical experts said that the hardware and technology used to monitor internet use has slowed the entire BTL Internet infrastructure. In addition, this monitoring “violates consumer privacy” because this technology “looks at” Internet content to determine if it contains voice data.
The forum’s moderator, Danalyn Myvett, PUC’s director of consumer affairs, emphasized repeatedly the need for a consumer advocate organization, “so you have a voice in these matters.” Tom Vidrine from the Ambergris Chamber of Commerce said that if a consumer advocacy group is organized that perhaps every Chamber of Commerce could promote one of its Directors to serve on such a committee.