Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bahamas - Support for the introduction of fixed and mobile number portability

[tribune] A major telecoms operator yesterday welcomed the issuance of a survey seeking feedback on telephone number portability in the Bahamas, something that is viewed as "one of the last significant barriers to competition" in fixed-line and cellular telecommunications.

Responding to the Utilities Regulation & Competition Authority's (URCA) survey release, Anthony Butler, Cable Bahamas' president and chief executive, said the Bahamas was now following number portability trends established in other markets that had deregulated.

"It's good for the consumer, and consumers tend to be identified by their phone numbers now," Mr Butler told Tribune Business. "It's more of a personal phone now. It follows the trends in other deregulated markets, and this market is also deregulating."

Number portability allows consumers to retain their existing numbers when switching to another telecoms provider, thus enhancing choice and convenience, and making for a more competitive market.

Usman Saadat, URCA's head of policy and regulation, said in a statement: "Number portability is one of the last significant barriers to competition and has several benefits, including enabling service provider choice, convenience to customers, and avoids having to inform friends, family and business contacts about a number change.'

URCA said that while the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) and Systems Resource Group (SRG), via IndiGo Networks, were the major fixed-line providers currently, there was the possibility of extra competition from Cable Bahamas and IP Solutions International. And number portability would become even more important when BTC's cellular exclusivity expired in two years' time.

Cable Bahamas is pushing number portability because of its impending entrance into the fixed-line market via its 100 per cent purchase of SRG, which is now awaiting regulatory approval. URCA yesterday extended the deadline for sector and public feedback on the proposed Cable Bahamas/SRG merger from Friday, October 1, to next Tuesday, October 5. Views have already been expressed that the deal could be "anticompetitive" and have a detrimental impact on the Bahamian market.

Edison Sumner, IP Solutions International's president, told Tribune Business that the planned merger, which would create a 'Triple Play' provider of communications services in the areas of Internet, video, data and voice traffic, could impact the maintenance of a 'level playing field' in the telecommunications industry.

"I think it will have an impact on the market, and issue like a level playing field and competition," Mr Sumner said. "Frankly, I think the deal is going to be anti-competitive to the market. I have similar concerns about the BTC deal [privatisation]."

The opposition from rival telecoms players, especially smaller ones and start-ups such as IP Solutions International, is both predictable and understandable, since they will fear the merged entity - together with a privatised BTC - will have enough market share, economies of scale and power to force out all rival operators. Both Cable Bahamas/SRG and BTC have their own infrastructure and networks, a priceless advantage, since other operators will either be forced to finance their own or rent/lease from the two incumbents.

Market observers have already privately told Tribune Business that Cable Bahamas' decision to formally consummate its marriage with SRG, something that has been in the making for five-six years, seems to presume that the Bahamian communications market will effectively evolve into a duopoly, dominated by the merged entity and BTC at the expense of all others.

Indeed, Cable Bahamas has made no secret of its desire to obtain a cellular licence when that sector is opened post-privatisation, something that would further a duopoly position if granted. And, if Cable & Wireless becomes the privatisation partner for BTC, it will bring its video/TV offering to that company, positioning the two 'incumbents' to truly go head-to-head. Whether this happens at the expense of increased competition from rival operators is likely to weight heavily in URCA's deliberations, with the regulator also having to take into account whether the Bahamas' relatively small 300,000-350,000 population can sustain more than just Cable Bahamas/SRG and BTC. One source suggested that Cable Bahamas' decision to move now on executing the call option to acquire SRG indicated it was extremely confident that it would pass all URCA's Significant Market Power (SMP) obligations in short order. This requires it to complete the accounting separation for all its business lines, in addition to splitting off - or unbundling - its cable TV offering from its Internet business.

Last key barrier to competition

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