BitDepth 638 - July 29

The Universality Fund may pave the way for improved telecommunications infrastructure in remote areas of Trinidad and Tobago, but its implementation must be transparent.
New toll for local telecoms development

A new telecoms e-road will be paved with we money. The two percent tax will inevitably come out of the pockets of consumers, either through slowed development or delayed cost reductions. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

draft Universality Implementation Plan for Telecommunications services in Trinidad and Tobago is the action arm of the Digital Divide report released by the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (TATT).
Described as a "consultative document," it outlines a strategy for raising funds through a two percent tax on the total gross revenue of existing  ISPs and telephony providers of two percent of their total gross revenue to provide service in areas which have proven to be economically unfeasible.
These local districts, described by TATT as Universality Service Areas, are the parts of Trinidad and Tobago which fall below the country average for accessibility and utilisation.

The Digital Divide report cited the national results of the 2007 survey as follows; a National Digital Access Index of 0.6668 and National Digital Opportunity Index of 0.6315. That result would put Trinidad and Tobago between the standings of Barbados (#27 with 0.64) and Italy (0.63) as recorded in the 2006 International Telecommunications Union survey.
But no nation is standing still, so true comparisons are almost impossible.
More useful numbers are to be found in TATT's targets outlined in the document, raising the proportion of households with fixed lines from 72.6 percent to 73 percent, the percentage of mobile subscribers from 92.6 to 93 percent and boosting Internet users per 100 inhabitants from 33.2 to 51.

Why woo wires?
Fixed line use is likely to be either static or declining and it seems that almost everyone who wants a mobile phone already has one (or two) and that reality seems to be reflected in TATT's conservative hopes for improvement in these markets.
Boosting Internet use makes sense, but there's a preoccupation with wired connections throughout the plan.
One of the projects outlined in the Universality plan is "affordable fixed telephony services for the purpose of domestic and international call origination and termination" and it's unclear whether the authority's hope for specific items such as a significant expansion in payphone installations would demand supporting wired connections.

The proposed fund will pay for infrastructure expansion in areas that telecoms companies have not found profitable in the past, but how will businesses make money off of what will probably be marginal services, particularly with the axe of TATT mandated affordability hovering over their heads? 
What happens if these businesses run the numbers and decide that even with funding, there is no business case for bidding on these projects?

Need for transparency in execution
Even more challenging is the framework in which the Universality Fund would be managed.
The decision to make the provision of services in under served areas a commercial venture (albeit one paid for by taxes on private enterprise), open to bid must be supported by a willingness to allow providers to fulfil the requirements of the services without prejudice regarding the technologies being employed.
This is worth mentioning because "mobile telephony" services are being specifically excluded from funding. As of this writing, mobile telephony is taken to mean commercial cellular services, but there's a real possibility that cost effective solutions based on 3G or High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) technologies that might be more appropriate to remote, widely separated settlements might be specifically removed from consideration through careless wording.

The accountability in TATT's plan consists of yearly reports on Implementation (specific activities of the fund and projects related to it) and an Accounting report. There is no specific note on how these reports will be made available to the public.
The importance of transparency in this exercise cannot be overemphasised. Government hasn't always interfaced with the private sector in ways that could be described as redounding to the benefit of the man in the street.
Competitive bidding for infrastructure funds and regular, transparent reporting on the activities of this telecoms fund in the media would go a long way toward both reassuring affected citizens that their needs are being met and providing a readily accessible record of the disbursement of the proposed fund.
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