Wed | Apr 1, 2020

Editorial | Why CARICOM must play hardball on roaming regime

Published:Friday | February 21, 2020 | 12:35 AM

We welcome the apparent advance in negotiations between the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the region’s telecoms on a new regime for call and data roaming in the Caribbean, but are holding our applause until there are further and better particulars on what is really on offer.

It can’t be difficult, at this stage, for consumers to be given more than a light sketch of the proposed regime, including whether it contemplates the explicit removal of roaming charges for people travelling within CARICOM, or the establishment of a special roaming rate for regional mobile phone users. We’d expect the former, assuming that is what was promised.

This issue has renewed focus in the wake of this week’s announcement by CARICOM’s current chairman, Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley, that, after negotiations with service providers, “a modest, fixed, single CARICOM roaming rate for all CARICOM” will be announced shortly. This fee will cover the cost of data, including access to popular social-media platforms.

This newspaper’s concern is that we, as yet, don’t know what is defined as “modest”, or if the single-fee regime will contain elements of ‘rebalancing’, requiring consumers of some CARICOM markets, especially the more competitive ones, to pay higher rates when they roam than they do at home.

Indeed, as Ms Mottley noted in her speech at the opening of the CARICOM Intersessional Summit, roaming charges within the community are prohibitive, representing a drag on the use of mobile communication technologies for doing business while travelling within the community. That’s not good for a region keen on engaging technology and is working towards structuring itself in a genuine single market and economy.

So, last November when the information and communication technology ministers of the 15-member group announced their decision to “collectively approach” the telecoms companies for negotiations on roaming charges, the initiative was widely welcomed.

The predicate, as we understood it, was the elimination of these charges when a consumer with a mobile phone registered in one member state used it in another. We, or course, expected that, similar to the European Union (EU), where roaming charges were eliminated 20 months ago, there would be some kind of a ‘fair use’ policy, to prevent abuse of the arrangement by, say, someone who moved abroad for an extended period, but maintained the contract with, and SIM card from, his or her ‘home’ service provider.

UNCLEAR NEGOTIATION

Apart from Grenada’s Prime Minister Keith Mitchell, who has oversight for this initiative, we are not clear who is actually negotiating the technical stuff for CARICOM.

Indeed, we were surprised that Jamaica’s Technology Minister Fayval Williams, who oversees among the community’s largest, and most sophisticated, mobile phone markets, appeared less informed about the development than she ought to be. Ms Williams and Jamaica’s Office of Utilities Regulations, in conjunction with the regional telecommunications oversight body, would be expected to be in the thick of things, ensuring the best deals for consumers.

The point is, given Jamaica’s, and the region’s, experience when their telecoms markets were liberalised two decades ago and how, in many respects, the new players have grown to resemble the old ones, CARICOM has to be attentive and aggressive to get the best deal for its citizens. We expect the service providers to argue that the removal of roaming charges will be a big economic hit, limiting their ability to invest in new technologies to upgrade their systems. The same argument was made in Europe for several years.

Unfortunately, we don’t have data on regional roaming use and its impact for consumers. The EU, however, might guide our expectations. It used to be the case that up to half of Europeans switched off their data when travelling within the EU. Within months of the removal of roaming charges, data use while roaming jumped 435 per cent. Calls, over the same period, increased nearly 150 per cent and within a year were up nearly fivefold.