The liberalisation of services via the Internet

Liberalisation, it is not just limited to telecoms and other utilities. A broad range of (retail) services have been dominated by commercial entities, some of which were protected under the law. Here, starting with the Uber situation in Trinidad and Tobago, we discuss the changing paradigm that has been occurring in the Caribbean, of individuals now delivering those services.

Since the New Year, and especially last week, there have been a number of articles in Trinidad and Tobago newspapers on Uber, which is appears to be embroiled in a few controversies since the platform launched earlier this month. For those who might not be aware, Uber is a online transportation platform that uses a mobile/cellular application (app) to connect driver-partners and riders.

In cities and countries where Uber operates, an individual use the app to request a ride, and a driver of a private vehicle (but it could also be a taxi driver), who is available and nearby, responds to the request, for a known fee. According to the Daily Herald, Uber is in three Caribbean countries:  the Dominican Republic, since November 2015; Puerto Rico, since July 2016; and Trinidad and Tobago, having launched service on 15 January 2017.

However, although Uber was known to have had extensive consultations with Trinidad and Tobago stakeholders prior to its launch, two critical but connected challenges have emerged: First, the Minister for Works and Transport has alleged that Uber’s operations are illegal, as private drivers are being made to contravene the Motor Vehicle and Road Traffic Act, as they do not posses a taxi driver licence (Source:  Daily Herald). Second, and in addition to being concerned about “Uber drivers” contravening the laws, local insurers are worried about the follow-on implications for insurance coverage and claims (Source:  Trinidad and Tobago Guardian).

Having sad this, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago is now being urged to make the requisite legislative changes that not only supports Uber and other similar services, but also provides an avenue for locals to generate income, whilst providing a solution to the country’s longstanding public transportation challenge. Similar to many Caribbean countries that have a public transportation service, invariably, it is inadequate – usually in terms of coverage area and frequency of the buses. That deficiency fueled the extensive private bus and taxi services that now exist in across the region, to fill that gap.

The challenge Trinidad and Tobago is experiencing with Uber is reminiscent of some of the concerns associated with Airbnb. Airbnb is the short-term accommodations equivalent of Uber. Currently, there are several hundreds, to thousands, of Caribbean properties listed on the site, which offer their owners a potential revenue stream, especially for rooms, apartments and houses that might otherwise be vacant.

However, in several countries worldwide, and even in the Caribbean, governments have been angling for Airbnb to collect occupancy and other taxes that traditional hotels are required to collect and pay over to the Government. Some countries have been successful in getting Airbnb to collect those taxes for and on behalf of their accommodations providers, whilst in others, the onus is on the Airbnb hosts to collect them as the local laws require.

Although from both the Uber and Airbnb example, there might be some difficulties associated with the delivery of those services within the Caribbean, both of those services demonstrate the freeing up of what traditionally might have been regulated, elite or even specialist services. Increasingly, without any major, added investment, and using resources they might already have at hand (such as a vehicle or spare bedroom), the Average Joe can capitalise on those and similar opportunities, and potentially make a living.

In the Caribbean, where protectionist measures are common in several industries, and across some segments of the society, we might be in the early stages of groundswell to remove those barriers. The presence of those services, which can be accessed online – independent of geography and interfacing directly with individuals – are driving our governments to be more progressive, to better align themselves with economic opportunities open to their citizens, from which they, themselves, could benefit.


Image credit:  Stefano Mazzone (flickr)