British Virgin Islands

Thursday, May 06, 2021

SMART Investing to improve Critical Traditional Infrastructure & High-Quality Internet Service

SMART Investing to improve Critical Traditional Infrastructure & High-Quality Internet Service

The Virgin Islands (British), comprising 59 square miles spread across 36 islands, cays, and rocks, is one of the smallest countries among the 15 members and 5 associate members in CARICOM.

Yet, the VI is recognised as having one of the most stable, prosperous, and robust economies in the region. Tourism and financial services, two fragile industries, are the main contributors to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The nominal 2017 GDP is $1.027B, an estimated 6.9% drop. This drop in the GDP is attributable to the devastation resulting from monster category 5 hurricanes Irma and Maria of September 2017. And per the Statistics Office, the nominal 2018 GDP (est.) is $1.3B; the nominal GDPs for 2019 and 2020 are being compiled. Additionally, the global pandemic, Coronavirus (Covid-19), has had a marked impact on the 2020 economy, especially tourism, and GDP.

Traditional Infrastructure


However, though the VI has had on average a relatively high nominal GDP of approximately $1B, the state of its traditional infrastructure, i.e., roads, water, wastewater, and electricity, are not at a level/condition commensurate with the amount of financial activity occurring in the territory. These infrastructure services are in a developing, not a developed, country state, resulting in dissatisfaction among residents. If the investment is not increased soonest, the territory's competitiveness will be adversely impacted. High-quality infrastructure is the lifeblood that transports the oxygen for national economic growth and development, sustainability, productivity, competitiveness, improved standard of living and quality of life, job creation/employment, draw for local and external investment…. etc. Moreover, telecommunications, i.e., internet/broadband, were not typically classified as traditional infrastructure. However, it is now, in many areas, a vital and critical infrastructure. Moreover, all infrastructure is critical, but the focus of this commentary will be primarily on telecommunications infrastructure, i.e., internet services.

High-quality Internet Service


Moreover, high-quality telecommunications, especially high speed, reliable internet services, are high on VI residents' hierarchy of basic needs. Nonetheless, the overall and overwhelming view of residents in the public and private sectors is that the service is too slow, unreliable, and too expensive. There is a high level of dissatisfaction with the level and quality of service. Government officials too recognise and share this dissatisfaction sentiment. For example, at a February 20, 2020 HOA meeting, in which Vance M. Lewis and Vincent Watley were nominated as Chairman and Deputy Chairman of TRC Board, respectively, Premier Andrew A. Fahie (R1) made the following comments: "One of the areas that I promise the people is to fix the internet, and I am going to hold true to this government's promise. To fix the internet situation in this territory is going to call for making some tough decisions. We are looking at the TRC board to go in and work with the actual day-to-day manager. And at the board level, make some decisions that will help us to be getting better internet."

Additionally, the Premier noted, "We do more financial services in here than most countries 10 times our size but yet we have the highest bills, and one of the worst internet system." Further, he stated, "I'm putting a lot of responsibility on this commission when it gets going to deal with this matter head-on. If the companies involved cannot get us better internet and you give them all the chances in the world, bring another one. And if that one can't give us better internet, get the satellites." Still further, "We are putting you there … to work," he told the new appointees. "And if you don't get the work done, we don't intend to fire you, we would just relieve you of your duties so that you can take them up elsewhere because it is very important that we get this telecom going."

Honourable Marlon A. Penn (R8), and Leader of the Opposition, also made the following comment:"The time is now for the TRC to have a 'shot in their arm,' to ensure that the leadership is there, to ensure that we hold the telecom providers to account for providing a quality service, not just for the business community, but for the regular consumer."

High-quality Internet Service Benefits


Undoubtedly, high-quality telecommunications/internet services are vital for national economic growth and development, competitiveness, productivity, improved standard of living and quality of life………etc. High-quality internet/broadband is the new normal and a minimum standard of national and community needs. There is a myriad of benefits to high-quality internet services, including:

a) Improve education, i.e., instruction, learning………etc.;

b) Enhance access to healthcare;

c) Improve connecting and socializing, i.e., Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter………….etc.;

d) Promote and improve existing businesses and facilitate creating new ones;

e) Facilitate jobs/employment;

f) Enhance the delivery of government services;

g) Facilitate procuring goods and services;

h) Enhance public safety and security;

i) Facilitate child and elder care, and;

j) Facilitate and improve communication between residents on outlying islands with Tortola and other locales.

Investment


Moreover, public and private investment in internet services is needed to enhance and boost national productivity, competitiveness, economic growth, and development and improve living standards and quality of life. Government and service providers must increase investment to build out new infrastructure, upgrade current infrastructure, recapitalise infrastructure and fund the backlog of deferred maintenance and repair. This investment must also focus heavily on telecommunications, i.e., high quality, high speed, and reliable internet/broadband services. Additionally, investing in the buildouts must not only be for meeting today's needs but also for future needs to diversify the economy, i.e., knowledge-based economy. It is admirable to earmark money to invest in infrastructure, but more is needed. The project must be state-of-the-art and include effective design, construction, inspection, operations, and maintenance. Taxpayers and customers must get value for money from both government and service providers.

TRC and TRC Board Oversight


The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) and TRC Board are the linchpins for overseeing the delivery of high-quality internet services. They play a pivotal role in ensuring that service providers deliver high-quality, high speed, and reliable internet services. The TRC and TRC Board must set standards and develop metrics to measure how effectively service providers meet the minimum standards. These metrics must be SMART (Specific Measurable Attainable Relevant and Timely). There are a triad of players engaged in setting standards and metrics, i.e., consumers, service providers and TRC. The TRC takes reasonable customer needs/expectations and service providers capacity and capability and review both to determine what reasonable standards and affordable level of service can be provided. As an example, the Quality Triangle (sides: faster, cheaper, and better/good) can be employed to determine the tradeoffs needed to get the best service, i.e., faster, and cheaper may not yield the best/quality service. Two legs of the triangle can be controlled but not all three. For example, typically if you want something good and fast, it is not going to be cheap and if you want something fast and cheap, it may not be good. And if something is needed cheap and good, it may not be delivered fast.

The TRC must be the neutral umpire in calling balls and strikes regarding the actions and behaviours between service providers and customers. The TRC must resolve issues in a fair, responsive, robust, decisive, timely, and professional manner.

Customer satisfaction is in a boiling state and is at a low ebb, and much work is needed to improve the satisfaction level. Notably, special attention must be focused at the 30' level to address and meet the expectations and demands of customers, the many, at the ground level. The TRC must lend an active ear and give voice to ground-level customers' concerns. In addition to improving quality and reducing cost, TRC, TRC Board, and Service Providers must work to recapture the confidence and earn customers' respect and trust.

Consequentially, the Ministry, TRC, TRC Board, and consumers must work in unison to deliver high-quality, high-speed internet services. Each entity has its roles and responsibilities. Each entity must be held responsible and accountable for providing high-quality telecommunications, a critical, vital national issue, and poor service, putting the territory at a competitive disadvantage. All the entities are committed to delivering high-quality internet services. However, the TRC, TRC Board, and Service Providers must urgently transform the commitments/words into concrete action. The long-suffering consumers, the many, need urgent relief from the poor internet services and high cost.

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