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Govt incentive, universal service fund proposed to promote emerging tech rollout

The government is promoting the rollout of emerging technology in the communications sector by granting reductions in licensees’ communications license fee if they invest at least $100,000 in emerging technology anywhere in the country, the Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority’s (URCA) draft revised 2023-2026 Electronic Communications Sector (ECS) Policy, which was released Friday, explained.

The policy also calls for the creation of a universal service fund (USF) to ensure that the Bahamian pubic at large is able to access electronic communications services.

With regard to the incentive for implementation emerging technology, the government said it requires that URCA develop a regulatory framework to allow this incentive to be coordinated.

“In order to qualify for the reductions, the investment by a licensee must have tangible and measurable outcomes, which further the interests of consumers by supporting the rollout of such technologies and the expansion of existing networks to unserved and/or underserved areas in The Bahamas,” the ECS policy document explains.

“While the government broadly encourages investment in emerging technologies, it is particularly concerned that such investments yield specific outcomes that are beneficial to the social and economic growth and development of The Bahamas in general, and the Family Islands in particular.

“To further this policy objective, the government has engaged with URCA and requests that URCA develop the regulatory framework to: (i) receive applications from licensees for reductions in the comms license fee; (ii) assess applications to determine whether the investment qualifies for the reductions by being aligned with the policy objectives of the government to extend the geographic availability of new technologies/services anywhere in The Bahamas; and/or extend the service/network coverage in currently unserved or underserved areas; and/or extend service/network coverage to particular geographic locations which are uneconomic to serve (particularly Family Islands); and (iii) verify whether the applicant has actually delivered on the outcomes it has committed to within its application.”

With respect to the USF, the ECS explains that while it is expected that “the most effective and sustainable means” to expand and improve services in the communications sector for all Bahamians is for the companies in those spaces to reinvest in improvements, the government understands there is not always the capacity for companies to reinvest. Therefore the USF is being proposed as a way to fund future developments.

“… where such relevant turnover (in companies) is insufficient to provide such services, support operating expenses and/or needed investment, the government notes that URCA, by determination or regulation, may establish a universal service fund, from which further financial support may be obtained by designated USPs (universal service providers) to be applied to USOs (universal service obligations),” the ECS document said.

“The government recognizes that the current funding for USOs may no longer be adequate or appropriate. This is primarily because the two major ECS licensees were both designated USPs and self-funded the provision on their respective USOs. Having regard to the new entrants to the ECS since the establishment of the 2009 universal service framework and subject to URCA’s review of the current USO framework, the existing funding for USOs may no longer be tenable.

“URCA is therefore encouraged to assess the merits of establishing a USF framework in accordance with the Comms Act to provide the requisite funding for accessibility to electronic communications services for all persons in The Bahamas, and to fulfill the government’s ECS strategic aims and policy objectives in this regard.”

URCA also said in a statement released yesterday that it has issued consultation on the proposed revisions of the consumer protection regulations for the ECS in The Bahamas.

According to URCA, the regulations are a decade old and do not mesh with changes that have occurred in the sector.

“Given the time that has passed since the regulations were published, the changes that have occurred in the sector markets, and URCA’s experience with handling consumer complaints since 2013, URCA’s proposed revisions intend to make the regulations up to date and fit for purpose; clarify ambiguous parts of the regulations; and issue new measures in areas where consumers were not protected,” the regulator said in the statement.

“Some key areas where changes are proposed to better protect consumers are: broadening the scope of who should provide a minimum level of service to consumers; making consumers more aware of fair use policies; ensuring consumers are fully aware of all aspects of the service they are paying for; ensuring consumers are not misled by advertisements of unlimited services; better informing consumers of planned and unplanned service outages; more easily opting out of receiving unsolicited text messages that contain advertisements; and reducing the allowed length of time for resolution of consumer complaints.”