If regional service providers can effectively tie together their horizontal and vertical business lines, it can be a game changer for the region. This will involve integrating business streams that span from submarine and terrestrial cable systems to fixed and mobile networks and cable TV operations. If done right it can lead huge financial rewards for the providers. At the same time it can help to fulfill development goals and integration aspirations of Caribbean nations.
Consolidation in the telecom sector is a way for operators to respond to consumers growing demand for digital content and services as seamlessly as possible. One only has to look at the examples in other markets like the US and Europe to see how consumer are benefitting from service provider innovation in the form of so-called “triple-play” and “quad-play” offerings. The goal of Caribbean telecom operators is no different: provide consumers with a one-stop-shop for their communications and digital services needs.
What’s In It For Consumers
As operators buy their way into new markets and expanded business lines, and regulators and policy-makers worry about the challenges of monolith and duopoly markets, the interests of consumers could sometimes get lost in the melee.
Consumers’ questions to mega-buys-outs and mergers for the large part, can usually be summed up by: “what’s in it for me?”
Questions typically include:
• Will my cable, Internet or mobile bill increase or better yet, decrease?
• Will I get better or worse service?
• Will I finally get access to all of the channels and speeds available in other countries?
There are also questions consumers may not ordinarily ask, but that will nevertheless affect them. These include:
• How will integration cost savings translate into consumer savings?
• How will expanded vertical integration translate into new product and service innovations?
• Will consumer choice and service quality suffer as a consequence of diminished competition?
Regional is the New Local
Regional telecommunications operators for their part have been quite silent on what specific benefits consolidation will deliver to consumers in the short term. The operators know that they don’t have to wait on regulators or regulation to impose conditions before they act in the interest of consumers. For them the Caribbean is already, technically, one market. Now they can make that a reality for consumers as well. They can use their ever-expanding regional networks and infrastructure to deliver to consumers and business customers the elusive dream of a truly connected Caribbean.
Here are five areas where telecom operators can demonstrate that their willingness to strike a balance between their drive for profits and consumers /need/right/desire for service innovation and excellence.
1. Affordable Caribbean Calling and Data Plans
The Problem: Simply put, it costs too much to make calls and to use mobile data plans between CARICOM member states.
Potential Solution: Eliminate roaming charges across all carriers, on mobile voice and data within CARICOM. Cutting roaming prices will lead travelers to make more use of mobile phones when abroad; resulting in more revenue for operators. For fixed line customers, the cost of calls to CARICOM countries should be dramatically reduced as well. This will also lead to more calls being made by both residential and business customers to family, friends and colleagues across the region.
2. Faster Broadband with Shared Data Plans
The Problems: No agreed definition of baseline speed for broadband; slow, unreliable or not widely available mobile broadband; and high costs for owners of multiple data-enabled devices.
The Solution: i) Define broadband as a minimum speed of 5MBps.
ii) Deliver proper mobile broadband services to consumers (not 2G and 3G masquerading as 4G). LTE mobile service should be the minimum speed for Caribbean mobile networks and its availability should be ubiquitous. LTE, an abbreviation for Long-Term Evolution, is now widely considered as the standard for wireless communication of high-speed data for mobile phones and data terminals.
iii) Introduce shared data plans that can be used by an individual, a family, or small business to cover multiple devices. Shared data plans allow subscribers to split a single data package across multiple devices.
3. Consolidated Online Services
The Problem: Paying bills, making complaints, requesting and tracking services and managing your account can be a hassle.
The Solution: Use the technology and the Internet to provide customers with a one-stop online and mobile interface for accessing services and managing accounts.
4. Mobile Number Portability
The Problem: For consumers in most Caribbean territories, if you want to switch mobile providers, you will have to get a new number on the new network. There is sufficient cause for some consumers to stick to one provide even if they are unhappy with service, cost or options.
The Solution: Implement Mobile Number Portability (MNP) to allow consumers to easily switch over to another service provider while retaining their existing mobile phone number.
5. Local Content
The Problem: Relative to the consumer appetite for local content, there remains a dearth of local television programming, feature film production and mobile app creation.
The Solution: Support for local content production. Investment in and structured support for content developers and app development with an emphasis on solutions to local and regional service delivery challenges. In addition to investing in local TV and feature film content production, Regional cable operators should come together to negotiate with content providers as one region to ensure that programming to North America and not Latin America.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. These approaches can not only make for happy customers, they can also energize flagging Caribbean economies and create real opportunities for entrepreneurs and business to thrive.
Of course, this potential will not be realised automatically. If history is any guide, private sector priorities don’t always naturally align to consumer wishes, or even regulatory preferences. But history also shows that where there is bold leadership, a pioneering spirit and a sense of purpose beyond profits, extraordinary value can be created for shareholders and customers alike.
We can only hope such leadership emerges from the tectonic shifts taking place in the Caribbean telecom sector. And if such hope fails, well, consumers may just have to put their faith in the region’s policy makers and regulators to get things right. One thing is certain, translating the potential benefits of consolidation into actuality will require a new levels of investment and commitment from providers and new levels of agitation and engagement from consumers. The rewards for all will be well worth the effort.
Bevil Wooding is an Internet Strategist with Packet Clearing House (www.pch.net) an international non-profit organization responsible for providing operational support and security to critical Internet infrastructure, including Internet exchange points and the core of the domain name system. Follow on Twitter: @bevilwooding