THE Opposition People’s National Party (PNP) believes the time may be ripe for new competition in the telecommunications market, with inefficiencies in service and the increasing demand for data over voice having been brought even more sharply into focus during this COVID-19 crisis.
Opposition spokesman on technology Julian Robinson made the suggestion yesterday against the background of renewed, widespread complaints from customers about the quality of Internet service islandwide.
“The OUR [Office of Utilities Regulation] needs to come out, as the regulator, and indicate what actions they’re are going to take to resolve this problem. Competition has served us well, and I believe it is something that has to be looked at. There are other frequencies that are available, and I believe it is something that has to be explored because we have seen the benefits of competition in this market when we introduced it almost 20 years ago, and I think we are coming to a stage where, given that almost everything has moved from voice to data, that there may be space for another data provider,” Robinson told the Jamaica Observer yesterday.
With a significant number of people now working from home, and schools shifted to virtual learning, a new wave of complaints have surfaced about the quality of data and phone services.
Robinson said it is time for the regulator and the Ministry of Science, Energy, and Technology to intervene.
“This started happening from before even COVID-19. The quality and the consistency of the service from the Internet providers is unacceptable, particularly in a time where many persons have to work from home and students have to do online classes from home. It is imperative that the OUR and the parent ministry step in to ensure that basic minimum service standards are maintained,” he stated.
Robinson pointed out that the disruptions are not one-off, nor recent. “It is not acceptable that a telecoms provider can be using vandalism as a reason, given the frequency of these disruptions and the fact that these disruptions have happened over a consistent period of time and it is causing disruptions to people’s businesses. There has to be an intervention from both the regulator and the parent ministry to ensure that this does not continue,” he argued.
Currently, the service standards for telecoms providers and power and water providers are not the same.
Public education specialist at the OUR Elizabeth Bennett Marsh explained that for the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS) and the National Water Commission (NWC), if there is no consumption, for the most part it would be reflected on the usage portion of your bill. However, she explained that most customers have entered into fixed term contracts with the telecoms companies for a set bill each month, whether or not they receive full service.
Bennett said this is an issue that the OUR is actively trying to find a solution to. “We are developing quality of service standards for the provider; we prioritised the NWC and the JPS because they are monopolies. There has been draft quality standards in place for a while now, we are awaiting the completion of it to address issues like that. Right now only one service provider, through its service terms and conditions, actually has in place a standard where it is that if you lose service for three consecutive days then you’re entitled to a rebate, the other provider does not. So we are moving to address issues like that where service is interrupted for a portion of time, and if that happens what should you reasonably expect from your telecoms provider,” Bennett said.
Meanwhile, she said Flow — the telecoms provider currently in the spotlight — has submitted a preliminary report to the OUR on the outage which affected thousands of its customers in the Corporate Area, Manchester, St Ann, and St Thomas Tuesday morning.
“We are awaiting the completion of the investigation as to what has caused the outage that has impacted both data, cable, and phone services; we are cognisant of it. The OUR continues to be disappointed when there is disruption of service, because we recognise that persons are working from home and students are relying heavily on the Internet to do their studies, especially those who are studying for CSEC [Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate] and CAPE [Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations],” she said.
Last November, technology minister Fayval Williams told the House of Representatives that Flow and Digicel Jamaica had, during consultations, indicated that they were “making improvements and customers should begin to see better service”. However, no timeline had been given.
She also said it was clear that the companies have not invested in modernising their networks fast enough to keep up with the growing bandwidth demand of customers, so now the infrastructure is inadequate for the country’s needs. Furthermore, Williams said high dependency on single fixed infrastructure has left the networks open to various hazards and risks.
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