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Digicel knocks Caribbean approach to net neutrality

Published:Friday | October 28, 2016 | 12:00 AMJovan Johnson
Dr Andrew Wheatley addresses the Organisation of Caribbean Utility Regulators Conference in Montego Bay, St James, on its second day yesterday.

One of the region's largest telecommunications players, Digicel, is knocking Caribbean governments for using what it says is a legislative-driven approach to affirm commitments to net neutrality rather than using thorough research-driven policy.

Net neutrality is the principle of equal access to Internet content on capable devices, which increasingly, has been landing service providers in trouble with regulators for blocking or wanting to impose charges for over-the-top content such as WhatsApp calls or text messages.

According to Kieran Meskell, Digicel head of regulatory affairs, the approach to resolving the issue is not similar to how Europe and the United States have done it.

"What we've had in the Caribbean is debate about the wording of the draft legislation. It's a little bit of cart before the horse," he told The Gleaner.

"It isn't policy-driven legislation. How do you test whether or not the legislation or regulation is fit for purpose? Actually you say, 'This is what I'm trying to achieve by policy'. We feel that there hasn't been, with all of the stakeholders, a focus on the policy."

Meskell said Digicel is interested in having the policy discussion and is looking forward to the proposed stakeholder group under the Caribbean Telecommunications Union.

The concerns of the telecoms official followed a presentation by Embert Charles, the managing director of the Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (ECTEL), during yesterday's second day of the Organisation of Caribbean Utility Regulators conference in St James.


Caribbean approach


According to Charles, the responses throughout the region to net neutrality and regulation have been varied. Guyana, he said, for example has passed laws affirming net neutrality while other countries such as Jamaica have issued ministerial statements supporting the concept.

"There has to be a Caribbean approach to support these principles to arrive at some balance. ECTEL plans to do a number of things. Our new legislation actually mirrors what Guyana's legislation has done. There will be rules for competition. There will be rules for quality of service in so far as the over-the-top services (are concerned)," he said in his presentation on net neutrality policy options and sector responses.

Charles also emphasised that the Caribbean Association of National Telecommunication Organisations' (CANTO) voluntary code of conduct includes a dispute resolution mechanism. But the debate in the region has thrown up the need for some form of regulation and the region needs to determine, using the code, whether self-regulation or co-regulation to involve service providers is the way to go.

Among other things, the CANTO codes include the safeguarding of legal Internet content and the requirement that providers communicate restrictions on services to consumers along with provisions for dispute resolution mechanisms.


Who covers the cost


According to Meskell, the question about who covers the cost for providing all services has to be answered in the application of any regulation.

"It may be that within a portfolio of services, how we recover our network investments, it may be that some services are zero rated. But they have a cost in the network, (so) where do you recover that cost? There is a narrow view that there is one price for every dish, irrespective of whether or not there is a different value to every dish. Does having that sort of simplistic flat-earth approach - all bits are equal - help you achieve your policy objectives of getting people both connected and engaged?"

For his part, the ECTEL managing director has proposed full public consultations as a means of trying to balance the interests of the public with the investors.

Jamaica's technology minister, Dr Andrew Wheatley, who presented yesterday, did not provide an update on Jamaica's draft ICT legislation, which some players believe will not be as tough in enforcing net neutrality.

"It is the responsibility of every country in this region to determine how to apply the attendant rules of net neutrality," he said.