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An old favorite in the Bahamian marketplace has been given a modern spin.
Ezminutes.com, a business recently launched by Nekia Brice, is tapping into the lesser-known e-commerce sector. And so far, the approach appears to be working. To date, more than 10,000 phone cards have been sold online as a result of Ezminutes.com.
Brice told Guardian Business that Ezminutes.com allows anyone from anywhere in the world to instantly purchase a phone card, using any internet-enabled device.
She said the company has already begun to lead the way in The Bahamas' e-commerce industry.
"We are at the dawn of the internet age here, in order for businesses to be able to compete in the future they would need to incorporate internet technology or be left with no business at all," according to Brice.
"With The Bahamas being an offshore jurisdiction for financial services, it is prime for an e-commerce boom in the near future. We want businesses to know that yes it is possible to obtain a Bahamian merchant account for accepting credit cards online. Once setup, the funds are cleared in a local bank account.
"Ezminutes.com is a Bahamian online small business which operates solely through e-commerce. We have proven it is possible and we hope to inspire others."
She pointed out that Ezminutes.com is optimized for easy navigation and few clicks from any mobile device, tablet or computer. Customers receive the pins on the website instantly once a purchase is complete. Purchases can be made using any visa or master, debit or credit card.
Brice revealed to Guardian Business due to the company's local success, plans are underway to expand to other countries. She hopes to launch a similar service in the UK by the end of 2012.
Once completed, customers will also be able to purchase UK top up vouchers for all major mobile providers, including T-Mobile, Vodafone, 02, Orange and Three.
Brice said this service will primarily target customers in the UK and anyone outside of the UK who wishes to keep their UK prepaid mobile number active.
Ezminutes.com is a product of Websoft E-Business Solutions, which provides consulting and development of online businesses in The Bahamas and throughout the world.
Brice's success comes as manager of e-commerce at MWF Group Bahamas, Damien Forsythe, recently told Guardian Business that the country is still missing out on a golden opportunity to cash in on the e-commerce sector.
Forsythe encouraged banks to provide more merchant services, as it would not only help local businesses grow but also help the overall economy by embracing this sector.
"I don't know if they are aware of the potential of those types of services," he said.
"They have really held back local businesses that want to sell online domestically and internationally. I think the banks are not thinking about it and have not been forced to think about it," he shared.
Bank of The Bahamas announced in February that it plans to launch a formal e-commerce program in the coming months.
While it has been said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, two Berry Islands businessmen were not willing to take that chance when they found their island completely wiped off the map -- literally.
"While doing research," said resident Mark Lothian, "we came across a map of The Bahamas that the Berry Islands was omitted from."
It's a finding that inspired the soon-to-be launched BerryzBuzz.com, which Lothian and partner Norman Bastian hopes will bring a change for the island's economy.
"The global recession has impacted everywhere negatively [and] no where in The Bahamas more than in the Family Islands," said Lothian. "The Berry's, being a very small, archipelagic, spread-out community, has been especially hard hit.
"Although we have almost complete employment, the economy is still not providing a decent living wage for anyone. All the businesses have been affected and little growth has taking place in the last few years. Most residents need to have several jobs just to make ends meet."
The partners are hoping to take matters into their own hands with the launch of the website, designed around promoting the islands, its attractions and its businesses.
The owners hope to grow the island's visitor base not only in the second-home market, but also from stop-overs wanting to spend time on the island.
It's a goal officials have said won't be realized until a major hotel is built on the more populated islands that can handle the crowd.
However, Lothian and Bastian believe leaving the island in its present state - with several inns and small bed and breakfasts littering the islands -- will actually work to the benefit of the island and distinguish it from the rest of The Bahamas.
"There are people out there just looking for a place like the Berry Islands to visit and to reside: a virtually crime-free, uncrowded, unspoiled, tranquil setting for the week-end visitor and the long-term resident or investor," said Lothian. "We disagree (that a hotel must be built), there are many rooms available, provided by boutique style bed and breakfast establishments, villa and townhouse apartments and attached and semi-attached rooms in private homes.
"Most of these are owned and operated by individuals that will offer the visitor personalized service to supply all their needs and wants."
Uniqueness is what they hope to showcase with the BerryzBuzz.com website, a virtual forum to promote local merchants and service providers to potential new customers and to promote the Berry Island chain to the world via the Internet.
Given that many of the businesses there are owner operated, there isn't much room for huge advertising or promotion budgets, said Lothian.
He intends to fill that void with more affordable rates that also target corporate and national businesses as advertisers to cover the bulk of the website's operating costs. The move is expected to defray their expenses and allow them to charge less than other traditional mediums for global coverage.
"What makes BerryzBuzz.com a unique platform for advertising and promoting the Berry Islands and its merchants is the fact that it will not be a static publication," said Lothian.
"We will be actively seeking visitors and investors through the advent of e-mail, blogging, social media and live response venues as well as strategic links to affiliated websites. BerryzBuzz.com will be constantly updated and improved as we grow."
Currently under construction, the website will be launched October 1.
"It is our hope that all the businesses, local and national we approach, will support us in this endeavor," Lothian added. "We will put the Berryz back on the map."
A Bahamian-owned company is planning a $40 million investment in telecommunications infrastructure if it obtains government approval to join forces with an international mobile services provider and become the next company selected to gain a mobile license in the newly-liberalized mobile environment.
IP Solutions International Limited (IPSI) currently has an application before the Bahamas Investment Authority (BIA) to approve a share purchase agreement and change in control for the company, which would permit it to bring in Limitless Mobile Holdings as an equity and strategic partner that would assist the local company in continuing to build out its infrastructure and its network.
Limitless Mobile owns and operates a mobile network in the United States, which is currently being upgraded to 4G/LTE. In Europe, Limitless owns and operates a mobile network in the UK, Germany, Denmark, Poland and Sweden.
Those currently involved in IPSI include CEO and major shareholder, Edison Sumner, Sir Orville Turnquest, Virginia Damianos and Larry Carroll. Limitless Mobile Holdings is led by Richard Worley, former chairman of Morgan Stanley Investment Management, and Charles Ryan, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Deutsche UFG, one of Russia's leading investment companies.
BTC's mobile exclusivity period lasted for three years after Cable and Wireless Communications (CWC) bought a 51 percent stake in BTC, as a condition of their purchase.
IPSI, which has been in existence since 2008, has already received the necessary individual spectrum and operating licenses that would enable it to offer fixed line, television and broadband Internet services - known as "triple play".
IPSI claims to have already built and deployed most of the infrastructure necessary to deliver its IPTV, broadband wireless internet and landline (voice over internet protocol) services in new Providence and Abaco and until recently has been servicing the communications needs of the Baker's Bay development on Guana Cay, Abaco for over three years.
In a release sent by Sumner late yesterday afternoon confirming information obtained by Guardian Business, IPSI disclosed that it is waiting for government approval of its partnership with Limitless Mobile before it moves ahead with building out its network and launching its planned rollout of full multi-play media and communications services throughout The Bahamas, which it hopes will include mobile data and voice services.
Sumner told Guardian Business that IPSI is "aptly qualified to get involved in the mobile space" and is prepared to begin the build out of its infrastructure in this regard immediately after they get the approvals from the government on the foreign direct investment component.
"The company intends to spend in excess of $40 million building out its network, the 4G LTE network, and completing the build out of the IP TV infrastructure. The fixed line and broadband infrastructure is already in existence and we just need to begin to migrate our customers onto that. We were already approved in doing it but wanted to wait until we got all of these approvals before moving ahead," said Sumner.
Guardian Business understands that the company has officially made known its hopes of becoming a mobile service provider in The Bahamas, and shortly intends to formally announce its intentions to the public.
Among other companies, Digicel has expressed its continued interest in becoming involved in the mobile space in The Bahamas, telling Guardian Business on Monday that it would hope the government will "imminently" outline how it expects potential participants to go about that. However, Digicel has also elicited a strong negative response from the union that represents BTC staff, the Bahamas Communications and Public Officers Union.
Consequently, IPSI is hoping it may be able to - despite Digicel's stronger financial clout - put itself forward as a more union-friendly company as a means of gaining more union and potentially political favor in the process.
As it stands, the ball is now in the prime minister's court, as the minister responsible of outlining how companies interested in gaining the license to become mobile operators in The Bahamas should proceed in doing that. This would, consequently, open the door to the formal launch of the bid to find a new provider.
There are various types of processes which governments can typically engage in to identify new providers, including auctioning the opportunity or issuing a request for proposal.
In a statement to Guardian Business on the end of BTC's exclusivity period in mobile phone services, the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation said that it supports more competition in all sectors of the economy as it "simply creates broader economic and commercial opportunities, while at the same time ensuring that the power is rightly placed in the hand of the consumer."
"We do acknowledge the progress that the new BTC has made with expanded offerings and competitive pricing. We are encouraged by the competition that we see emerging within the marketplace for broadband and land line services.
"For us to see optimal service delivery and best possible packages and prices though, we do need strong robust and fair competition in the sector," said BCCEC Chairman Chester Cooper.
Three hundred high-level attendees from 23 countries or jurisdictions will attend next week's OffshoreAlert Conference to discuss everything that's important in the world of offshore finance.
The event - which will be broadcast live over the Internet to those unable to attend - has sessions for buyers, providers and investigators of offshore products and services.
"A unique aspect of The OffshoreAlert Conference is that it brings together a diverse group of influential individuals from onshore and offshore jurisdictions ..."
In an effort to further enhance mobile performance, the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) has agreed to a multi-year contract with a Florida-based company specializing in roaming, messaging and networking solutions.
BTC will utilize the services of Syniverse in the hopes of improving mobile call quality for local subscribers on its network and for roaming callers that frequent the country annually.
The CEO of BTC Geoff Houston said the new partnership will be a great resource for the network.
"At BTC, we are constantly exploring new ways to enhance the mobile experience for our end users rather than managing the endless complexities that arise from having a multitude of vendor relationships," Houston said. "Syniverse brings the best of both worlds - providing the in-region expertise and solutions to optimize the experience of our subscribers and inbound roamers, while also serving as a preferred provider for so many of our mobile support needs, allowing us to remain focused on our top priority, our customers."
Syniverse provides mobile solutions for over 900 mobile operators, cable and Internet providers in over 160 countries. Its array of resources that it will offer to BTC go beyond messaging and roaming. BTC will now have the ability to proactively recognize and resolve problems such as network outages before the user is impacted.
The company should also be able to offer real-time alerting and rating capabilities that alert subscribers as they use data services at home and while roaming, and minimize the size of the uncollectable data roaming bill for BTC.
Senior Vice President of Syniverse for the Caribbean and Latin America Pablo Milkota, said BTC's commitment to improve mobile service quality is a great decision and it certainly will pay off in the long term.
"BTC is taking full advantage of Syniverse's breadth of solutions to meet and anticipate customer demands today and well into the future, while also realizing the efficiencies of a single source for advanced mobile solutions," Milkota said.
"We are pleased to expand our relationship with this forward-looking operator, building upon our long history of serving operators in the Caribbean and throughout Latin America. As a result, we now make mobile work for 95 percent of mobile subscribers in the region."
The Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) intends to launch Internet Protocol television (IPTV) by March 2015.
BTC Chief Executive Officer Leon Williams confirmed the information at a business meet and greet event while he was talking about the updates to the telecommunications network. The company has previously only said it would begin trials by Christmas with a 2015 rollout.
"We are in the process of spending some $65 million this fiscal year - ending in March 2015 - to improve our cellular network as well as to deliver services like iMPLS (interprovider multiprotocol label switching) and MPLS (multiprotocol label switching) that gives the high-speed bandwidth that businesses need," he said.
"In addition to that, sometime between now and March, we hope to get into the business of television. We are launching our own IPTV network. Stay tuned. Coming soon."
IPTV takes advantage of the same "language" used by the Internet to allow information to be sent and received over any broadband or network connection. AT&T, one of the leading IPTV providers, says the technology is "a different, improved technology than 'traditional' cable or satellite TV, and it allows for more flexibility within the network."
IPTV enables two-way interactivity...The two-way IPTV network means viewers have more options to interact, personalize and control their viewing experience.
Multiprotocol label switching is a protocol for speeding up and shaping network traffic flow. It was created in the late 1990s to avoid having routers waste time by having to stop and look up routing tables.
Interprovider MPLS is an enhanced provider interconnect service that allows MPLS-based service providers to seamlessly extend IP virtual private network (IP VPN) service reach beyond their region. Based on leading industry standards and technology, iMPLS dramatically enhances a provider's time-to-market capability for serving out-of-region customers while minimizing the capital expense needed to build out an extended network and service infrastructure. Interprovider MPLS also grants service providers immediate access to Global Crossing's converged IP applications.
The Ingraham administration privatized BTC in 2011, selling 51 percent of the company to Cable and Wireless Communications over the vociferous objections of a significant number of people. It was a campaign pledge by the Christie PLP that, on assuming office, they would renegotiate in order to return majority ownership of BTC to "the Bahamian people".
At the gathering, an event sponsored by the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation to salute Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald, Williams noted that in September, negotiations concluded and CWC transferred two percent of the company into a foundation designed to benefit the Bahamian people. The new arrangement means that CWC owns 49 percent of BTC, with the government of The Bahamas owning 49 percent and the foundation - which government officials refer to as "the people of The Bahamas" - owning two percent.
"I make the distinction between the Bahamas government, and the people of The Bahamas. The people of The Bahamas own 51 percent of the economic value of BTC," Williams said. "[That's a fact] we should be proud of."
Williams talked about the challenges of connectivity in The Bahamas, which he noted covered the same area as the entire Eastern Caribbean. He said there are five submarine cables - possibly more - connecting The Bahamas to the U.S. and the rest of the world.
"There are no other countries in the Caribbean as connected as The Bahamas," Williams said. "We've got both cellular networks, CDMA and GSM. So whether the tourist comes from the U.S. as a Verizon customer or as an AT&T customer, it makes no difference - their phone works while they are here."
Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) CEO Leon Williams called on the government to lead the way toward The Bahamas becoming the hub for regional information and communications technology (ICT), in his recent address to ICT professionals at the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner's second annual National Training Symposium in Nassau.
The symposium theme, "The seventh data protection principle: Personal data security offline and online", is one of the eight data protection principals that guide the industry.
Williams was one of seven speakers and an honoree of the data protection commissioner for achieving 46 stellar years of service in the telecommunications industry. Others honored were Felix N. Stubbs, past president of the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce; June Collie, director of Department of Information Technology; Raymond Wells, deputy director of information technology at the National Insurance board, and Detective Sargent Dale Strachan, Royal Bahamas Police Force.
Williams spoke to the question, "Does The Bahamas have the necessary IT infrastructure to become a premier data relocation jurisdiction?"
He answered, "not yet" on his subject matter, but he envisions a day when investments will be made to build the country's information and communications technology (ICT) sector to full capacity. He said that The Bahamas must "dare to dream" to reach its full potential as an IT and data hub in the region.
"I dreamed last night of something called digiBahamas," said Williams.
"In the dream, the 21st century information age forces leaders to re-think the present mode and its ability to sustain the economy without exploiting the digital dividend in the industry of ICT. My vision is that the government of The Bahamas would diversify the economy, as it did with tourism and financial services. It would implant ICT as the third economic pillar by making the Bahamas the hub for regional ICT."
Williams believes that the foundation for this vision already exists, if resources and opportunities are utilized correctly.
"We must use our proximity to the U.S. mainland to our advantage," the CEO urged.
"We have at our disposal the existing four fiber optic submarine cables between The Bahamas and the U.S.: The Americas Region Caribbean Ring System (ARCOS) network connecting us to 14 Caribbean countries and our Bahamas Domestic Submarine Network International (BDSNi) connecting 14 Bahamian islands and Haiti."
Williams suggested a multi-pronged approach to achieve his vision.
"We should establish ourselves as an internet exchange point (IXP); establish data centers and create incentives to attract manufacturers; revise our ICT regulations and laws, and capitalize on our skilled labor force. There is no shortage of Bahamian engineers but we must find ways to counteract the brain drain and attract them to come home."
An IXP is infrastructure where internet service providers (ISPs) exchange internet traffic between their servers.
Warning that the country may be falling behind, the CEO explained: "Many countries in the Caribbean have already created local IXPs; we are falling behind. The IXP, like our regulating body URCA, should be created by the providers. Having this structure will save money for the ISPs and the consumer, as the bandwith to send data to the U.S. and back would no longer be required. Furthermore, it is more secure, so the data from our country stays in country. The major benefit is national security."
Williams related that, in a meeting with Cable Bahamas Chairman Anthony Butler the previous week, they enjoyed a meeting of minds and objectives with regard to national interests and he surmised seeing more cooperative actions in coming years.
"Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Cisco have anywhere from $45 billion to $137 billion, if we could attract companies of this magnitude to build manufacturing hubs here, we could do away with tax structures like VAT and address the country's debt."
Speaking further on data security, Williams reiterated the need for a sovereign, local IXP. He explained that currently Bahamian data is at the mercy of foreign entities.
"Recently, we talk a lot about the NSA, the National Security Agency, but all of our data passes through Miami currently. Since 2011 there has been something called the Patriot Act, where no ICT company can have an encryption that the NSA cannot access. With a local IXP, we limit data access to Bahamian eyes."
He also stressed personal responsibility in data security and told users to beware of overshare in the digital age, warning that data mining by international companies and governments could endanger personal information.
"Every time you use an app to count your steps, for example, you tell Google, or whomever, where you are, you must ask, 'Who else are you telling by extension'? We must stop putting so much blame on law enforcement, because no matter what they do, they can't protect your data better than you."
"Cable Bahamas has earned profits of over $203 million in fourteen years."
Last week in this column, we asked our readers to consider whether the Utilities Competition and Regulatory Authority (URCA) should approve Cable Bahamas' request for an increase of the basic cable fees by as much as 27 percent. We foreshadowed a town meeting that was organized by URCA on Tuesday, September 11 to allow them to hear the public's views on the requested increase. We went to that town meeting which was well-attended, lively and, at times, even passionate.
Therefore, this week we would like to Consider This... was the URCA town meeting productive? What, if anything, did it teach us about Cable Bahamas?
The URCA-hosted town meeting was represented by some of its senior executives. Several Cable Bahamas executives were also present as well as one identifiable director of that Company. The meeting was chaired and the ground rules were clearly explained by URCA's general counsel and, except for several reminders to allow individuals to be heard, the meeting was lively and occasionally boisterous.
There were approximately 200 persons at the meeting and at least 50 of them spoke to the issue.
Not one single person who publically expressed their view felt that the increase was justified or should be approved. There was unanimous objection to the proposed price increase. We did not get a sense that anyone in attendance felt intimidated about supporting the price increase. Admittedly, URCA did not adequately explain the reason for the proposed increase, except to state that Cable Bahamas felt that the cost of programming had increased, without any statistics to support Cable's claims, as well as the fact that the cost of living had increased since 1995 by 37 percent.
Some of the sentiments expressed by participants at the town meeting included the following:
o Cable Bahamas should be ashamed of itself for asking for an increase;
o In light of the channels that subscribers are receiving and Cable's poor level of service, Cable is not entitled to an increase;
o Cable should consider keeping the current price level while decreasing the number of channels offered because many subscribers could do without some of the channel offerings;
o It is patently unfair for Cable to charge a reconnection fee of $55 or $56, particularly given the frequent outages experienced by some subscribers;
o Given its monopoly, subscribers are held technologically hostage because there is no choice of service providers;
o There are many students who rely on the Internet for study purposes and "without Cable Bahamas, we are technologically blind";
o Too many of the channel offerings are in Spanish which, in an English speaking country, is unacceptable;
o This town meeting was only cosmetic and a farce and it was felt that a decision had already been made by URCA to grant the increase;
o URCA was asked to quantify how much of The Bahamas has cable, pursuant to Cable Bahamas' mandate to "provide cable to the entire Bahamas." URCA never answered the question;
o It is grossly unfair for Cable Bahamas to charge households $30 and $50 to businesses for its monthly service. This disparity is unacceptable and unjustifiable;
o Cable Bahamas is demonstrating that it is the worst kind of corporate citizen by asking poor people for an increase while many Bahamians are still suffering the effects of the economic downturn; and
o The proposed increase of $8 for household consumers is unconscionable because with that amount "we can buy at least eight tins of tuna fish or at least three tins of corned beef".
Perhaps the biggest bomb shell was dropped when activist Rodney Moncur asked URCA to confirm that its Chairman Randol Dorsett is the lead attorney for Cable Bahamas, which Moncur maintained resulted in a gross conflict of interest. Moncur added that "it is professionally immoral for the chairman of URCA to be Cable Bahamas' lead counsel (in the Supreme Court) and therefore has no confidence in URCA's ability to be independent in this matter". The question went unanswered.
Cable Bahamas director's views
While no one from Cable Bahamas spoke at the town meeting, in an interview with one of the daily newspapers, Dionisio D'Aguilar, one of the Company's Directors, agreed that if Dorsett is still Cable Bahamas' lawyer and URCA's chairman, "that does seem to be a bit of a conflict". He was also quoted as describing the meeting as "stupid" and a "complete waste of time". He continued that for Cable Bahamas, "it made no sense for them to respond to those people". He is also quoted as saying that "those town meetings are the stupidest things that God ever created. They are always out of control; they are just a way for people to vent".
Cable Bahamas' financial results
When asked about the level of profits that Cable Bahamas has earned over the years, one of URCA's executives replied that Cable Bahamas is a public company whose profits can be viewed online. So we went online and noted a startlingly revealing history of profitability by that company. For the period 1998 to 2011, the published annual audited net profits earned by Cable Bahamas are as follows:
It is revealing that Cable Bahamas earned a net profit of $7.2 million in 1998 (its lowest) and a record high net profit of $28.5 million in 2009, or an average annual net profit of $15 million for the 14 years reported. Could it be that the company applied for a rate increase in 2011 because it realized that its annual net profits were declining from 2009 and wanted a higher return for its shareholders that approached that banner year results? Is that sufficient justification for a rate increase?
Or perhaps Cable Bahamas has noticed that, because of the economy, its subscribers have migrated from the more expensive packages to the basic package, thereby accounting for some of the decline in its profits. So, instead of applauding the allegiance of its subscribers who, in such a desperate economy, have found a way to stick with cable, albeit in a smaller way, in an example of capitalism at its worst, cable decides to raise the price of that basic package, perhaps taking it out of the reach of the very customer who has been forced to drop the more expensive package to scrap together that $30 each month. To even the casual observer, it appears to be a classic case of corporate and individual greed.
Whatever one might think about URCA's town meeting, one thing is certain. These types of public fora are indicative of a maturing and deepening democracy which enables citizens to express their views on issues of national importance. They should be encouraged and we commend URCA for hosting such meetings, even if they are uncomfortable for some of the stakeholders. To date, given the enormous profits that Cable Bahamas has earned over the years, especially in light of its cable monopoly, a persuasive argument has not been made that would support the proposition that URCA should grant the requested increase at this time, having regard for the already high cost of living that many Bahamians are experiencing.
This exercise has clearly demonstrated that such public meetings will contribute to the deepening of our democracy even while a monopolistic company is simultaneously seeking to deepen its coffers and the pockets of its shareholders.
Next week, we will consider how, from its inception, URCA seems to be plagued with charges of conflicts of interest and what can be done to overcome such perceptions and allow them to do their important work, free of the shadow of scandal.
o Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis & Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to email@example.com.
For several hours last Monday, we were forcefully reminded exactly what is meant by an essential service and what it feels like to go about our daily lives without not just one essential service, but minus a pair of them. Today, we would like to Consider This ... what do we have a right to demand from those who provide us with these important services and what should we do if those providers don't live up to their end of the bargain?
Each of us enters into contracts during our lives - contracts with our bank, our employer, even our spouse. Those contracts have very definite parameters, giving us things in exchange for our promise to give something in return. After receiving what we have contracted for, whether it is money, employment or a faithful, loving spouse, if we fail to live up to our end of the bargain, loans get called, jobs are lost and sometimes, marriages wind up on the rocks.
Then, there are the other kinds of contracts where those with whom you have the contract must continue to provide that for which you have contracted as you agree to fulfill your part of the agreement, also on an ongoing basis. These contracts are the kind we have with our essential service providers: The companies from whom we get electricity, water and telephone and, to some degree, cable television and Internet providers, although some would argue the latter are not essential services. However, after being prevented from using ATMs all over the island last Monday because of Internet related problems, many would unquestionably classify them as essential services.
So we innocently sign up for these services, being duly informed about what will happen to us as customers should we breach our part of the agreement but never asking what compensation we could expect should the service provider fail to deliver the contracted services. It rarely occurs to many of us to ask "what happens if the lights go off?" or "what do we get back if the phones fail to work?" or "what can we expect if we have to do without water?" It is almost unthinkable that things like that would happen on a protracted basis. At least it used to be.
We are now a different kind of people. We have shown that we have little patience for politicians who do not live up to their promises. We are becoming a people whose patience is wearing very thin.
We are beginning to awaken to the fact that we do have rights and that an agreement should be taken seriously - by both parties. We are embracing the idea that we do not have to settle for whatever service we happen to get, whether it is good, mediocre or downright absent, as it was on Monday past. We are starting to ask about the fairness of having to pay the same charges whether we get what we pay for or merely a pale shadow of the promised service.
Why, for example, do we have to pay the same price for rusty water coming through the taps into our sinks and washing machines that we agreed to pay for what we were assured was a clear, clean, potable product that would not ruin our clothes and force us to buy bottled water to use for what tap water is supposed to provide? Moreover, when we signed up for water, we did not expect to have good pressure sometimes and dribbles or nothing at other times.
Yes, things happen. Emergencies occur. But emergencies are becoming so commonplace that having a good steady stream of water from your tap for some areas of the nation is now the exception, not the rule. Most just suck it up, so to speak, and pay the full water bill for the less than full service they have received.
And then we have the Bahamas Electricity Corporation (BEC). While we are growing, we were used to power failures because of "generation problems", this past week's massive outage was caused by a "surge on its system", as BEC said in its press release on the event that crippled the capital for hours on Monday past.
But, month after month, consumers who are being asked to pay astronomical bills in return for what is anticipated to be a steady supply of current are being shut off because of non-payment. Business growth is severely handicapped by the cost of electricity as well as its unreliability, caught between going broke paying for it and going broke because you can't open your business because of a power failure - a real example of being damned if you do and damned if you don't.
And what are you offered when their part of the bargain is not fulfilled and the lights kept on? True, we only pay for the power we use, but the problem is much more complex than that. We have contracted for a 24/7 supply. We construct our lives around that understanding. Our business hours rely on that. We buy our food and plan our day around the belief that we will have power. If the contract told us we would have 12 hours of electricity every day, we would plan differently. But it doesn't. And we should have a reasonable expectation when entering into a contract that it will be carried out, just as the other party expects payment. Fair is fair and it's time for BEC to level with its customers, tell us what that contract really means in terms of supply and, instead of charging us for a reliable supply of electricity, bring down the rate for the UN-reliable supply of electricity accordingly.
And then there is BTC. Today it seems as though we are held together and linked to the world beyond with our landlines, cell phones and smart phones. We conduct business, parent our children, sustain our relationships and expand our social life within and outside our communities, all via the miracle of telephony. Without it, the nurtured networks of our lives crumble. We experienced that on Monday as everything ground to a halt when, for reasons that have yet to be discovered, our telephone system failed.
Before Monday, we have been experiencing less than stellar service with our phones. Cell phone systems are being upgraded, we are told, so we are becoming used to large gaps in our connectivity. Our landline system, when it has problems, is now subjected to a new and much more rigid repair protocol that results in a longer wait-time to be resolved. Once again, we did not sign up for this when we entered into an agreement for telephone service. And we certainly did not agree to pay for mediocrity and a constantly evolving system, subject as it seems to be to a trial-and-error kind of level of service.
BTC has provided financial consideration for those who suffered through Monday's debacle but very little reassurance that things will get better as they continue to charge for connections that often do not connect. Fair is fair. As long as BTC is in the upgrade mode, tinkering with systems and fixing platforms, the rate charged the consumer - who really is becoming more of a BETA testing participant - should be adjusted accordingly - and not just for 24 or 48 hours. As with Water and Sewerage and BEC, we are paying BTC for something we are not getting, so that payment structure needs to be addressed in the name of fairness.
Until we can get what we are paying for where our utilities are concerned, being a First World nation will continue to be an elusive dream. But once we are treated fairly by those we contract to provide these services, the sky is the limit and our admission to the First World and the 21st century will be assured.
o Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis & Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
With the recent letter sent out to second homeowners on Eleuthera, an old debate has been given new life.
There are those who don't want to "offend" the second homeowners who are seen to bring money to the islands in the form of tourism, but this hotel guest tax is passed on to the guest, which is then passed on to our community.
The amount of rooms now available for rent via the second homeowner market far exceeds the number of actual hotel rooms on the island and as such, those rooms should be seen as a "hotel" in itself.
For far too long, second homeowners have not been licensed and not paid hotel guest tax as required by law. Some of them have been told by website owners that they don't have to pay it "because they will never get caught"or the "Bahamian government will never get it together enough to enforce the law."
As we are staring down the face of VAT, it is time to take control and enforce the laws that we already have. We are leaving so much money on the table right now, and it is time to wake up. It is important for the community and it is the law.
Back to the topic of second home rentals, a few non-Bahamians set up websites and convinced homeowners to list their properties on Eleuthera. Although this is illegal, according to Bahamian law, these extremely successful operations have flourished because no local person has had the wherewithal to create a competitor and our government, whether by inattentiveness or by design, looked the other way.
According to several sources, one site is generating in excess of $300,000 [a] month in rental income, netting its operator $30,000 in commission per month. The fine alone for the properties listed on one website amounts to $7.9 million for just the year 2013. There needs to be accountability both on the part of the government, the homeowners and the locals. The time for blaming others has to end. This is no one's fault and everyone's fault.
The law since 2009 states that any property that rents out one bedroom or more must be licensed and must pay hotel guest tax. This tax is 10 percent and is passed onto the guest and then forwarded to the government at the end of the month.
The form is extremely simple to fill out and many people pay their hotel taxes in cash at the administrator's office. The more difficult part is getting licensed. In order to be licensed, the home will need to be inspected, and many second homes that are in the rental pool will not pass that inspection.
Sure, the homes that rent out for $15,000 [a] week will probably pass inspection but those that rent for less might have deferred maintenance, which will preclude passing the inspection. Does every room have a smoke detector? Do you have fire extinguishers (inspected and tagged) by each stove? Do you have a pest control contract? Do you have reliable power and clean water? Do your air conditioners work? Do you have doors that lock? Do you have either phone or Internet that is on? Those are just some of the things that homeowners will need to comply with to get licensed and I venture to guess that many will not pass.
Having homes inspected will ensure that many of the guest complaints will cease because most of them have to do with cleanliness, lack of water, AC, power and lack of security. We have all heard about the filthy homes, robberies, lack of clean water and lack of guest services at rental homes. This is not just a problem of the homeowners and their renters, this problem affects all of us.
The money collected from hotel guest taxes is shared between the local government and Nassau, 50/50. The estimated amount of guest tax not collected from rentals since the beginning of 2013 is over $100,000. Sure, it is probably a lot more, but do you think that our settlement could use $50,000?
The claim that the online rental service providers have increased tourism to our island is false, according to United Airlines, American Airlines, Ministry of Tourism and Expedia. The guests are simply being diverted from local hotels and inns to rental homes.
Again, it is illegal for non-Bahamians to transact any real estate business, whether they are in the United States or any other country. The homeowners who list their properties for rent with anyone who is not Bahamian are breaking the law. Some of the website owners try to subvert the law by using a Bahamian shill and some don't even do that, going so far as to boast that the Bahamian government will do nothing to stop them.
This is a problem for all of us. If you own a home and receive rental income, you need to be licensed and registered and you need to pay hotel guest tax. Period.If you have a child who is being educated in one of our schools, you are affected by the lack of money going back into our community. If you are a non-Bahamian website owner, you are in violation of Bahamian law and you have misrepresented yourself to your clients.
I have heard from many homeowners that they were told not to register and not to pay hotel guest tax because the government wouldn't do anything about it. Whoever has said that should be ashamed and should be held accountable.
The hotel guest tax is just another piece of the puzzle. Are we going to protect and care for our country or are we going to rape her and destroy her for today's gains?
If you are buying crawfish out of season, if you are doing shoddy work, if you are not caring for an animal, if you are charging someone too much, if you are being rude to tourists and if you are looking the other way while your neighbor takes a "payment", you are part of the problem.
Are we a nation of talkers or doers? All of these things take care and action on our part. The problem is not only the homeowners, the problem is all of us for being too lazy to enforce the law and for allowing there to be a hole in the market that needs to be filled.
Any Bahamian could do the same thing that the website owners are doing, but will we do the work or will we sit back and blame others for our lack of prosperity? -- Concerned Citizens