Although it had been promised as a highly anticipated event, at midnight last Thursday, there were no bells, no bugles and no lowering of flags. The end of the 25-year-old Cable & Wireless, now LIME, monopoly came and went with hardly a whimper.
The event was heralded by a press release from the Ministry of Information, informing the media that the playing field was now levelled and that the gates were now open to all players.
The end of the era had been the subject of many a discussion in places high and low, but when it finally came, it was hardly an event of cataclysmic proportions.
The entity which will be most affected, no doubt is LIME, as its direct dialling capabilities, for which it had the monopoly, is no more. In the provisioning of Internet services that company has been facing stiff competition from APUA INET and ACT Online.
Therefore, in this new era, it is probably in the area of providing Internet service where the competition will be most keen and the provider who can offer the cheaper phone rates will get the greater market share.
The nature of technology is of such that it is impossible to be canned and the lid shut tight.
The era of VOIP, Voice Over Internet Protocol, began many years ago and it has been many years since Antiguans and Barbudans have had the capability of using the Internet to make telephone calls.
Many homes now use the ubiquitous Magic Jack; Skype is open to anyone with a computer and Vonage phones are a dime a dozen.
The fact is, the monopoly, which Cable & Wireless should have been enjoying these past few years to all intents and purposes, had come to an end. The agreement expired a long time ago and only existed on paper, rather than practice. So last week, the reading of the last line in the last chapter was largely ceremonial.
Driving all this, of course, is cost. In general, phone service via VOIP costs less than equivalent service from traditional sources. This is largely a function of traditional phone services either being monopolies or government entities. Users see VOIP phone calls (even international) as free. While there is a cost for Internet service, using VOIP over the traditional service might not involve any extra charges, so the calls are viewed as free.
To the average consumer, it is difficult to imagine how this form of deregulation will affect a service, which is already viewed as costing nothing.
In the business of communication, there are so many options open to consumer. Messaging has taken over from telephony. Text messaging, Blackberry Messaging and email rank even higher on the communication scale.
It must have dawned on LIME that it had nothing more to gain by sticking with a monopoly which had long outlived its utility.
Meantime, the other players in the field have been chomping at the bit as they view the endless possibilities open to them now that the only limitation on their growth would be how they are perceived by the public.
They, too, are aware that if they are to be considered as alternatives to the elder statesman, they have to come good, as the saying goes, and that their offerings will have to be attractive and most of all affordable.
The options available must of necessity be the costs associated with the provision of Internet service and the packaging of both voice and data. Any new player must have a bundle attractive enough to cause the consumer to sit up and take note.
It cannot be gainsaid that the end of this monopoly augurs well for the consumer who has seen cell phone rates tumble with the advent of the many players. Internet rates also will fall. It is just a matter of time.
It is noteworthy that despite deregulation, government has indicated it intends to keep a watchful eye on this vital sector. The telecommunications ministry has seen it fit to install a quality assurance unit to ensure that no player has an unfair advantage over the other and that the consumer is not shafted in the process.
All the players were asked to sit down and agree to some basic rules. However, each player will be seeking to corner the market. This is just the nature of business in a free market system.
In the weeks ahead, government is expected to monitor the providers to ensure fairness.
It is comforting to note that the government has indicated that it intends to become a member of ECTEL, the Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority, the body which overseas the sector in the region, which has as its vision statement to be a model multi-state regulatory system providing quality leadership and advice, by applying fair, transparent and independent processes to promote competition in a fully liberalised telecommunications environment for the creation of socio-economic opportunities within the Eastern Caribbean whilst ensuring global network connectivity.