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A cowboy by any other name


A cowboy by any other name

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FOR THE PAST TWO DECADES, information and communications technology (ICT) has undergone nothing short of a revolution.

From analogue to digital, including the universal spread of the Internet, from monopoly control to multiple providers and a free market economy, from  wire to wireless telephony to smartphone and a plethora of value-added services including apps.

But with all these changes, should we not by now be able to characterise the local telecom sector as free and fair?

The answer would probably be yes, if there were no other markets with which to compare our situation. At least, that’s what the “ex-monopoly” would like the public to perceive.

For the average citizen, the ability to acquire a mobile phone from a choice of both equipment and service providers seems to be freedom indeed. Nonetheless, there are many lingering questions yet to be answered.

How does one justify a market-driven sector that keeps being dominated by the natural monopoly?

 When that original monopoly remains both as service and network or infrastructure provider to its competitors, doesn’t that create an intimidatory environment for competitors?

And now with the buyout of Columbus Communications by Cable & Wireless, barring some conditions stipulated by the Fair Trading Commission, should we not be prepared for “retrogration” to monopolistic behaviour rather than migration to a higher level of service?

Remember, the cowboy had been riding alone in this region with a bagful of tricks that look like treats.

 By the word trick, I am implying the Macmillan definition of an effecting and skilful way of doing something. Which brings me to the Sesame Street story of Cowboy X.

Cowboy X went through the town writing X all over the place. The angry residents had a meeting with the cowboy and ordered him to stop writing X all over their town. Sure enough, the cowboy complied. The bad news was that Cowboy X changed to Cowboy O and started a new campaign of writing O all over town again.

I am wondering whether we are at the stage where the local Cowboy X has complied by agreeing to the terms of the Fair Trading Commission and is about to return as Cowboy O.

You see, even in this telecom free-for-all marketplace in which we now live, when so many consumer-unfriendly fee charges have been dropped by newer competitors, this cowboy insists on security deposits, installation fees, withdrawal of service charges, reconnection fees, “penalty” fees, directory omission fees, and so on.

 The removal of those very same burdensome charges by competitors has constituted some of the main gains achieved by consumers.

But with the cowboy fresh from his exploits in the successful capture of “Cow-lumbus’ and feeling so pumped up, everyone waits with bated breath to see if he will returns as Captain O.