OVER THE PAST half-century or so, Barbados’ engagement with providers of telecommunications services has been quite interesting. It has moved from an extended period of monopoly involving the Barbados Telephone Company (BarTel) and Cable & Wireless (C&W) to one when competition stimulated an unprecedented level of excitement among consumers, to the current regime of very limited competition.
In all fairness to traditional major players like BarTel and C&W, though it came at a high financial price to users, Barbados was well served with householders and business operators benefiting from a level of service that was unmatched in just about every other regional market.
The advent of the Internet and the cellular phone, the transformation of the modus operandi of the traditional players and the introduction of new players shook up the local telecommunications environment. The logos of BarTel and C&W then shared the spotlight with others such as FLOW, TeleBarbados, AT&T and Digicel.
Market dynamics being what they are, however, mergers, acquisitions and downright failures also impacted, with BarTel becoming C&W, then LIME, now FLOW, which in the interim had gobbled up TeleBarbados while Sunbeach just faded into oblivion – but not before teasing Barbadians with some grand plans.
Today, however, there are just two major players in the market, FLOW and Digicel, which has just remade itself as a full-service telecoms player largely as a result of an $80 million investment in a brand new islandwide fibre optics network. On the face of it, therefore, the Barbadian consumer once again is operating in a market where he has a choice.
Additionally, since the Fair Trading Commission (FTC) set as a condition of approval for the merger of LIME and FLOW last year that they must sell all duplicated fibre optics cable to another interested party, and Digicel has chosen to build its own network from scratch, it suggests there is room in the market for a third full-service provider.
We believe it is therefore important that the FTC makes its position known on this matter, especially since it had established time frames for the separation of this excess capacity by FLOW. The lack of interest by Digicel would suggest that a search for potential buyers would have to take place outside of Barbados.
Without doubt the competition that arose from the liberalisation of the telecommunications sector in Barbados by the then Owen Arthur administration brought significant benefits to the country and it is important that as the world telecoms environment advances, Barbadians are not left behind – the result of a less competitive market.
The current players have invested heavily in the infrastructure, particularly in the area of fibre optics, but how they choose to recoup that investment will be influenced in large measure by the volume of competition in the market and the willingness of consumers to compel creativity from providers by exercising their power to choose.
Just a few months ago Barbados was in danger of slipping back into a near-monopolistic scenario because of the FLOW/C&W merger, but the decision of Digicel to move forward as a full-service provider has changed that. Now is therefore a good time to broaden the market, create further competition for the consumers’ purse and encourage the continued deployment of the latest in technology.
That’s how Barbados will truly flow into a bigger, better telecoms market that remains at the cutting edge in this information age.