Is just one telecoms network enough?

The establishment of a single, national telecoms network that supports affordable services and is equitable accessible to all carriers, is a desire many countries have, but few have realised. We discuss some of the pros and cons of such projects.

 

In the aftermath of recent Hurricanes Irma and Maria, some Caribbean countries, such as Barbuda, Dominica Sint Maarten and Puerto Rico, found their telecoms infrastructure significantly decimated. In addition to grappling with the extent of the destruction experienced, telecoms network operators are beginning to wrap their minds around the rebuilding that must be done.

The silver lining in the current situation, is that the operators have an opportunity to revisit and update the infrastructure they deploy, which ultimately, could result in even better services than had been experienced prior to the storms. Having said this, and although the major firms will offset the expense to be incurred through insurance, the rebuilding effort is still a daunting undertaking, especially since telecoms access, and more so mobile/cellular service, has become such a crucial lifeline for all of us, and across virtually all sectors of the society.

It thus should not be a surprise that there has been a suggestion from the telecoms regulator in Sint Maarten for a single network to be created:

We do not believe that doing all restoration efforts on your own as a communication provider is the best way to move forward. Now more than ever, we feel the need for far-reaching collaboration between the Government, regulator and communication providers….
“To even take it one step further; we are still a strong advocate for the establishment of a neutral entity that operates and maintains a core fibre-optic infrastructure on the island on which licensed network operators and service providers may render communication applications, services and content to residents and businesses…

(Source:  The Daily Herald)

A neutrally-owned network: pros

The concept of establishing a neutrally-owned fibre optic network, to which telecoms network operators connect is not new. A few countries worldwide have successfully implemented it, such as Australia, Singapore and Malaysia. In virtually all instances, the initiative was government-led, and to a considerable degree, also government/publicly-funded.

Having said this, there are a number of benefits that could be realised by having such a government-driven initiative. Firstly, if it is successful, there could be a marked improvement in the access to, and availability of, fibre optic connections across a country – depending on the scope of the proposed rollout. Second, and thanks to government’s involvement and a likely emphasis on realising (as close to) 100% connectivity, there is the potential for more affordable price points to be offered, and considerably faster transmission speeds than what typically had been the norm.

A neutrally-owned network: cons

On the other hand, national broadband or fibre network projects are incredibly expensive, and complicated to implement. Most countries, especially those in the Caribbean are unlikely to be able to afford to finance such a major initiative. Additionally, the resulting third-party owner would be a monopoly carrier, and to the extent that most countries have been promoting competition in virtually all segments of the telecoms market, it could be argued that actively establishing a monopoly seems to be a step backwards.

Further, to the extent that governments, such as in Sint Maarten, might be eager to coax their telecoms operators to partner in having a single network, in an attempt to avoid the financial commitment that such an initiative usually attracts, such an approach is likely to be fraught with problems. In addition to the points made in the previous paragraph, getting sufficient consensus among the participating entities will most likely be difficult and quite protracted. Further, if the Government is indeed to have a stake in this resulting entity and management of the network, it will most likely need to put some skin in the game, and commit considerable funds.

Final thoughts

In summary, rolling out a publicly owned and operated broadband/fibre optic network is not for the faint of heart. Not only is it complicated and costly to implement, lengthy delays in its success realisation (if at all) should be expected. Essentially, governments need to be prepared to play a long game – most likely beyond one political term. Hence, multistakeholder and multi-partisan buy-in is essential.

Finally, countries need to be very clear about the reasons why they are undertaking such a project in the first place, and equally important, the desired outcomes. Ideally, it should be part of a broader broadband/ICT plan, as there are number complementary initiatives that should also be rolled out.

 

Image credit:  CommScope (flickr)

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