On Friday, November 20th, 2009 Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL), which is now owned and controlled by the Government of Belize (GOB), pulled the plug on Speednet’s SMART Company. By doing so, BTL disconnected the international circuits that allowed SMART to give its customers international and roaming services. What this means for over 90,000 SMART customers (almost 1/3 of Belize’s population) is that they are unable to enjoy the international services (text, voice and roaming services) offered by SMART.
It is important to understand that very few investors like competition, but at the end of the day competition is a healthy thing for consumers. When there is competition consumers can choose between one phone company or another and they have the option of deciding which company serves them best.
The ability to attract customers must be done on a level playing field and it must be fair to all parties concerned; in an environment that promotes and ensures investor confidence. The hostility between BTL and SMART and the fight for increased market share has been highly publicized and has reached to an extent that BTL now suffers financially. But that’s the reality of competition; you put up or get out of business!
BTL’s action last week can be seen as a sign of desperation. Because BTL, as it appears, cannot stand the heat in the kitchen, it is exploiting an agreement made when SMART was first established to add pressure to its only competitor. The BTL strategy compels SMART customers, who are unable to enjoy international service, to “Make the Switch.” Wrong! BTL has only frustrated and agitated SMART customers and their feeling is that BTL is forcing them (SMART customers) to use BTL’s services. In fact the Prime Minister stated on national radio, “let the users of the SMART phone buy Telemedia’s (BTL) cards in order to make their international calls.”
Whoever owns BTL now still does not change the fact that BTL wants to remain a monopoly. For years, Belizeans were subjected to BTL’s high rates. When SMART came into the telecommunication picture, BTL began offering the Double Up and Triple Up credit and other competitive promotions. For over two decades BTL enjoyed the telecommunications market alone; why wait for so long to offer such deals to their customers? To make a long story short, Belizeans have been bleeding for too long and any form of competition is welcomed.
Any decision taken by BTL’s Board of Directors falls squarely on the Prime Minister as the Minister of Finance. Case in point, when GOB took over BTL, the Prime Minister stated clearly to the nation that “Speednet (SMART) would be allowed to fly free.” A few weeks after, our Prime Minister had a change of heart. The Prime Minster not only knew beforehand what BTL was going to do but “applauded” the decision. It appears that BTL is being used as a political tool, and not as an investment belonging to Belizeans. The reality of things however, is that when the Prime Minister allowed BTL to pull the plug on SMART, it sent a bad signal to investors. Investors will not come and invest in a country where the conditions to equal market access are not available. For investors to come they require a level playing field and fair competition WITHOUT government favoring one particular party or threatening a hostile takeover whenever they feel like it.
Belize is facing the worst economic status post independence and is deep in an economic recession, with a record-high cost of living, a decrease in tourism arrivals, severe unemployment and underemployment, increase in infant mortality rate especially due to the inefficiencies in the public health facilities, raising costs of utility services, loss in investor confidence and the streets overrun with criminals, the last thing any wise government would do is to destabilize, meddle in the private sector and pressure investors.
Instead of engaging in public battles that will eventually lead to litigation, GOB should get its act together and address the real issues affecting our society. Belizeans all around the country are concerned and want to know the answers to many questions. When will government address the issue of the high cost of living? When will the price of rice, beans, flour, sugar and corn go down? When will the price of fuel go down? Why must Belizeans pay a 10% increase in water when we are already burdened with a recession? How long will Belizeans wait to hear how our government will proceed to take us out of recession? What will the government do to address the crime situation that keeps increasing? What can the government do to lower the interest rates when borrowing at the commercial banks? What will the government do to address the public health problems? What is the Government doing to regain and ensure investor confidence? These are the issues our leaders need to be addressing. Picking a fight with the private sector will only hurt our economy. In ending, our leader should bear in mind that, when the elephants (GOB/BTL and SMART) fight, the grass (consumers/Belizeans) gets trampled.