How will regional regulators respond to CWC's acquisition of Columbus?

Can telecommunications regulators from across the Caribbean see beyond their national interests and present a unified regional response to a common challenge? The recent announcement by Cable and Wireless (CWC) of its proposed US$3 billion acquisition of Columbus International could prompt them to try. If approved, the deal will make CWC the Caribbean’s largest wholesale and retail broadband service provider. But the acquisition requires regulatory approval in Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Barbados.

Against this backdrop, the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU) is convening a special meeting of regulators, economists and industry experts, in an effort to forge region-wide consensus around the regulatory issues arising from the proposed deal. The CTU Secretariat hopes, after the two-day meeting, to be able to advise Caribbean Community (Caricom) heads on measures to be taken to mitigate against the expected fallout from the CWC acquisition.

National regulators, such as the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (TATT), and sub-regional regulators, such as the Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (ECTEL), Jamaica's Office of Utility Regulation, Barbados' Fair Trading Commission and the Bahamas' Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority, have been invited to take part in the high-level meeting, alongside invited representatives from the CTU member states.

Earlier this week, ECTEL issued a statement warning that the proposed CWC-Columbus deal could result in a negative impact on competition, and reduce choice by consumers of both services and service providers.

The sub-regional body said increased monopolisation could “erode the gains made by the liberalisation and create challenges for the entrance of new service providers.”

Both CWC and Columbus could be in breach of their licenses if they engage in activities, which can unfairly prevent, restrict, or distort competition, ECTEL said, adding that it would work with other Caribbean regulators to advise member governments on the pressing issue.

The announcement of CWC-Columbus deal, on November 6, followed a joint venture entered into by both companies in late 2013, through which they agreed to share regional subsea fibre assets. News of the development sparked concerns that the deal could return several Caribbean territories into monopoly or near-monopoly markets for telephony, cable TV and broadband services.

The upcoming CTU regulatory forum, which takes place on December 10 to 11, will also seek to address other relevant issues, such as the removal of voice and data roaming charges, number portability, over-the-top services, open reporting and social investment by telecom providers. The need for stronger, more coordinated regional regulation practices was highlighted in July of this year, after mobile phone users in Haiti, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago were affected by a move by major regional mobile providers LIME (a CWC subsidiary) and Digicel to block access to OTT telephony services—including several popular Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications.