A game changer: how ECTEL allows five countries to punch above their weight

This month, the Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (ECTEL) celebrates its 15th anniversary. Here we highlight its impact on the countries it serves.

For those of us who have an interest in the Caribbean telecoms/ICT landscape, you may have observed that although the Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (ECTEL) might not be as visible as some of the other regulatory organisations in the region, it appears to be held in very high regard by the players in the market, their fellow regulators, and even governments. Moreover, it is seen as a thought leader, as frequently it is one of the first regulatory organisations in the region to broach a topic, and engage its stakeholders, in order to determine the policy position that should be adopted.

Established by Treaty signed on 5 May 2000, by Saint Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada, ECTEL was created as part of wider telecoms sector reform process that was jointly undertaken by those countries. The process, for which the countries secured part funding from the World Bank, was initially conceptualised in 1998to introduce “pro-competitive reform”. However, that goal was subsequently abandoned and replaced with realising full liberalisation of the telecoms sectors in those five countries. The video below tells the ECTEL story, which is part of the journey the countries took toward enjoying the benefits then now have in telecoms and ICT.

Benefits of having ECTEL

Although it might not have been fully appreciated at the time, a regional approach to telecoms regulation was not only unprecedented in the region, but also globally. The OECS/ECTEL model has been studied extensively, and organisations, such as the World Bank, was advocating such an approach in other regions, such as the Pacific, but to date, it does not appear to have been successfully replicated.

The regulatory machinery, of which ECTEL is a part, comprises local telecoms regulatory offices (National Telecommunications Regulatory Commissions (NTRCs) in each of the five countries, with ECTEL as the hub. This arrangement has allowed the countries involved to punch above their weight in the following ways:

  • First, as five countries for which their combined populations is under 600,000, a joint approach to telecoms/ICT regulation have allowed them to realise certain efficiencies and savings due to having better economies of scale and scope.
  • Second, the countries all adopted common policies and legislation, which has allowed for a harmonised approach to be consistently applied, and the concept of a ‘single telecoms space’ to be nurtured. It has also allowed certain activities, such as carrier licences, numbering and radio frequency spectrum management, to be centrally managed. For example, with regard to licensing, if a carrier wishes to operate in more than one of the countries, ECTEL is part of the review process, thereby allowing it to have a wholistic view and to advise the countries accordingly.
  • Third, ECTEL is the repository of technical expertise for the NTRCs. Hence that expertise does not need to be replicated in each of the countries, but through ECTEL, it can be efficiently and effectively accessed as and when needed.
  • Finally, as discussed in the video, having a regional approach to telecoms and telecoms regulation has allowed the countries to significantly increase their bargaining power in negotiations. With ECTEL at the table, and with the knowledge and competencies it brings, the five countries it represents cannot be so easily dismissed.

What about the next 15 years?

Without a doubt the five OECS countries that ECTEL serves have enjoyed considerable developments in their respective ICT/telecoms sectors. Although the regulatory machinery has been working relatively well since its establishment, to better position the countries for the future, the policy and legislative frameworks, in particular, could profit from being updated. The overarching legislation in each of the countries is a Telecommunications Act, which was promulgated around 15 years ago. Further, as the title of the law indicates, the focus is on telecoms, which means that with the current emphasis on ICT and the Internet (which is likely to continue into the long term), there may be some major deficiencies that the current framework cannot address.

On a separate note, and with regard to the relationship between ECTEL and the NTRCs and by extension, the countries, there ought to active discussion on whether or not, or the extent to which the existing arrangements should be deepened. To deepen that relationship may require the countries involved to cede more control to ECTEL, which tends to be a ticklish topic. Nevertheless, it may still merit ventilation, to ensure that the established structure continue to achieve the goals the countries have set.

 

Image credit:  M Glasgow (flickr)

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