Several times during the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearing on the Telecommunications Authority (TATT) at the J Hamilton Maurice Room, Parliament, yesterday, both TATT’s CEO Dr John Prince and its chairman Gilbert Peterson lamented that they had no "teeth" to optimise their effectiveness.
Opening the proceedings PAC chair,Dr Bhoendradatt Tewarie said the meeting was about seeking solutions to some of TATT’s challenges to help improve its service.
The CEO explained that at the birth of TATT, its objective was to open up the market since the Telecommunications Services of TT (TSTT) had a monopoly on communications services in the country,as the sole provider for fixed line, mobile and internet services.
He added that TATT had also signed on to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and was one of the first 60 members to sign the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), in an effort to promote and protect the interest of consumers.
However, Prince said with major providers not adhering to the rules under which they obtained their licences, and given one instance where a provider actually told TATT it could not do anything about it, TATT has now reached a stage where government needs to step in.
On regulating all the entities under the TATT umbrella, including the 37 FM radio stations, Prince said it is a challenge for TATT to make sure they remain within the terms of their licences.
He said: “Cabinet grants concessions, we give the licence. We face a mountain of challenges, because we have not been able to give up any further licences on the 700 spectrum.”
This came up after TATT was asked to say why customers experience dropped calls, cannot make calls in open spaces, and do not receive service in some rural areas.
Prince said emphatically: “The service providers are not providing the quality of service properly.”
At this point he said Parliament needed to give TATT the right to sanction the providers, apower it does not possess.
He added that the concessions of those service providers are to provide service to the whole of TT, but they don’t, and are not bothered, because they know TATT cannot act on it.
Prince said: “We don’t have enforcement mechanisms to deal with breach of licences. They promise to comply, but they don’t. That is the Catch-22 situation we are in. We try moral suasion, but it is not working with the telecommunication providers.”
Kirk Sookram, one of TATT’s engineering experts, said in some rural areas, it is economical for providers not to set up business, but offered that TATT can perhaps use the Universal Service Fund (USF) to deal with those areas, public spaces, transport hubs and parts of Tobago, once the universal service regulations go to Parliament.
Earlier he said TATT has been sending money to the USF – some $30 million last year, $37 million this year – and if it gets the use of the 700, it can send $50 million next year.
Prince added: “We need the authority of Cabinet to deliver on the 700 spectrum and access to concessions.”
Peterson added that TATT faced a legal stumbling-block but amendments to the relevant legislation could give it teeth to enforce the terms of engagement, or else it may have to take drastic action in terms of whether to renew licences or not.
Tewarie closed the session by saying: “We have to leverage that technology and ensure the big-picture issues are dealt with, and also ensure consumers have better quality access to service. We cannot be competitive without leverage.”