By Marcia Forbes PhD
Last week saw sparks flying between Digicel and LIME, Jamaica’s two telecom providers. There is nothing unusual about this. Over Christmas 2008, a full three years ago, as then Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Mining and Telecommunications, I remember responding to an exhortation from one of these companies for me to “Have a Peaceful Christmas.”
I said I would if they allowed me to. At that time, the Ministry was inundated with charges and counter-charges, accompanied by actions of one-upmanship intended not only to denigrate the other in the eyes of its customers but with revenue-stymying effects as well, as these two companies battled it out. New to the public service, that was when I realized how powerless Ministers of Government can be.
Pulling on support from the Office of Utilities Regulations (OUR) and the Fair Trading Commission (FTC) in trying to resolve the issues, I realized how decidedly impotent they were based on the inadequacy of existing legislation. Before departing that portfolio in mid-2009 and moving to the newly-created Ministry of Energy and Mining, the ICT Green Paper was well on its way following numerous public consultations. Here we are at 2012. The quarrels between Digicel and LIME continue and the required legislative framework to deal with some of their outstanding issues is still not yet in place. One year in Government taught me that the pace of policy formulation and legislative change is inexorably slow and without an aggressive driver little gets accomplished.
Up to the time Digicel entered the Jamaican market in 2000, Cable & Wireless, LIME’s parent company, was for many Jamaicans a much-hated monopoly. In their book, The Cell Phone, Horst & Miller talk about the “rich discourse of Jamaican expletives” encountered against C&W as they collected research data. Jamaicans still sometimes refer to it as “careless and wutliss.”
Prior to Digicel’s entry, the Jamaican market was a cash-cow for C&W. Today it is different. The company is bleeding red, with its Chairman Dehring reported to have said, “LIME did lose J$2.6 Billion in a six month period.” Operating expenses are high and growing. In contrast, Digicel, over its 11 years in this market, has become the dominant player in mobile telephony, regardless of the legal semantics they use to argue otherwise.
Jamaicans grew not just to love, but to adore Digicel. However, toward the end of 2011 into 2012, a growing trend was noticed on social media, in particular via Twitter, where persons took to berating Digicel. Then came the major flare-up during the week of Jan. 16, 2012.
Cliff Hughes of Nationwide Radio got tongues wagging when he announced a possible pull-out of LIME from Jamaica. This, his station said, came from informed sources. Dehring denies this, even while admitting that the telecom is on shaky ground if it continues to bleed. As Emily Crooks of Nationwide tweeted, and in this order, “Chris Dehring – says he is “stating categorically that LIME is not shutting down operations in Ja,”; “Not shutting down but, people are going to have to take a cold hard look at the situation”; “London has told LIME Ja to turn the Co around and get regulation in place to level playing field”- Chris Dehring.”
Twitter, a bellwether social network excellent for detecting trends and moods, was ablaze on Jan. 18 after Nationwide’s bombshell. LIME, now an underdog, was finally getting some love. Jamaicans love underdogs. Tweeps abhor the idea of a possible return of Jamaica to telecom monopoly status, even if that single player is Digicel. This company’s approved merger with Claro, another teleco provider in Jamaica until early 2011 when its owner Carlos Slim decide to “lock it down,” has been frowned upon by many.
The buyout is fraught with what seems like a “cart before the horse mentality” of the former government. Permission for Digicel to operate a single network after its March 2011 acquisition of Claro was first denied then approved. This approval was not, however, accompanied by the requisite legislative framework to ensure that other provisos to this single network are in place.
LIME has good cause to lobby not just the Government, but also, as it is now doing, the people of Jamaica, to press its case. Jamaicans will support it, but not unreservedly so, as this tweet makes manifest: “I wish they would run a good, efficient business so I could say that Digicel should cut them some slack.”
Jamaicans still believe that LIME leaves a great deal to be desired. Its customer service continues to be widely disparaged although many believe that its products are superior to Digicel’s. For its part, Digicel needs to tread cautiously. A couple of days ago message of an event arrived via my Facebook account. Named “Boycott Digicel”, this event is scheduled for March 1 – 2, 2012 when, as it says,
“This is the day when Digicel will be officially shutting down the Claro network. The organizer is asking supporters to “send a signal to Digicel that we want all the services that Claro had to offer.” A slew of these were itemized. Admittedly, some of those very offers may have helped to force Claro to exit the market.
Jamaicans are waking up to the possibilities of social media for citizen activism and the practice of democracy. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become the new water coolers. People discuss postings. Through clicks and word -of-mouth, views go viral both on and offline.
Companies like Digicel and LIME need to be awake and alert to this. The event organizer ends his message with: “We will not sit and take whatever you (Digicel) throw at us, we the people must have a say in what we want and the services we need.” Enough said!
Dr Marcia Forbes is a media specialist, the co-owner of multimedia production company Phase 3 Productions Ltd and former Permanent Secretary in Jamaica’s Ministry of Mining and Telecommunications and later the Ministry of Energy and Mining. She is the author of Music, Media & Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica and the upcoming Streaming: Social Media, Mobile Lifestyles.