Lack of good telecommunications makes Falklands more remote

THE lack of good telecommunications with the rest of the world is adding to the remoteness of the Falkland Islands according to representations made by members of the public at the ongoing Select Committee on the Communications Bill.

The Bill provides for the licensing of activities related to communications in the Islands and also for the establishment of a regulator, who amongst other responsibilities would watch over Sure’s (almost) exclusive licence as the telecommunications provider.

The Select Committee itself began last Thursday, a landmark in Falklands history as for the first time, several members of the public gave evidence. Whilst much of the evidence presented focussed on the services, and service levels, which a Telecomms provider might be expected to supply, several of the speakers pointed out in their evidence that the Licence, which defined the services, and the Communications Bill, were inextricably linked, and could not be discussed in isolation.

Step change required.

Most speakers commented on the bottleneck of bandwidth, as currently provided, forced them to adopt tactics such as downloading large files after midnight, or even resorting to sending files by hard disc using DHL. Collaboration with fellow-scientists on projects took weeks rather than hours. Distance learning for students was increasingly difficult. As one speaker pointed out – the Falkland Islands are already geographically remote; the lack of good telecommunications with the rest of the world was making the remoteness worse.

MLAs asked many of the speakers what level of network speed would be acceptable if the current setup was considered too slow. Among the responses, Nikki Buxton, Managing Director of Synergy Information Systems Ltd., and Dr Megan Tierney of SAERI, both suggested a step change in bandwidth rather than the proposed incremental improvements. A speed increase of between fifty to one hundred times faster was needed, they suggested. The Falkland Islands needed to catch up with the rest of the world, rather than always lag behind.

Nikki Buxton warned the committee: “Without major investment in increased bandwidth, among other issues, we are in danger of our young people not returning to the Falklands when they complete their education, and FIG and businesses could have increasing difficulty in recruiting qualified personnel. Use of the internet in the wider world has become so integral to business, education and lifestyle, that our internet provision could become a deciding factor for these groups.”

Exacerbating remoteness.

Dr Randhawa of FIG Fisheries Department, told the committee that many people relied on fast internet, not only to download essential data, such as satellite images, but also to participate in training courses, video conferencing, recruitment, or webinars. The Falkland Islands were geographically remote, but the lack of good communications exacerbated the remoteness.

Dr Randhawa was one of several speakers who pointed out the potential benefits of a community intranet (which didn’t use the satellite link, but retained data locally). It was mentioned that the schools had access to such a network, and Sure provided fast, local access to videos of the Island Games from Jersey. This saved people needing to individually downloading data from the internet via the satellite link.

“In summary”, said Dr Randhawa, “FIG must not only protect our ability to communicate with the scientific community, but ensure it remains abreast of communication technology available overseas so that its scientists can continue to provide essential services to industry and the community and contribute to the prosperity of the Falkland Islands.”

Dr Megan Tierney, of the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI), commented to the committee that “the collective capacity of people within the Islands, and in conjunction with international partners to conduct world class research necessary to continue rich, sustained and responsible economic growth and environmental management is already being proved. However, if the opportunity to enhance and improve the communication tools and infrastructure that is essential to this development is not taken, we will stagnate and fall helplessly behind the rest the connected world.”

In his speech, Executive Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce Stacy Bragger also emphasised the issues businesses faced due to remoteness: “The provision of telecommunications is absolutely key to the development of our business community and the Islands as a whole.  The remoteness of the Islands means that great emphasis is placed on telecommunications.  The need to make use of technological developments is vital.  As the Islands continue to develop the lag behind available technology keeps increasing.  There will always be a demand for more internet access.  The amount of data available now is insufficient to bridge the current gap and the proposed increases will do little to increase the situation by 2019.”

He continued, “The Chamber believes that the drip feeding of megabytes that has been agreed will be totally inadequate as we move towards 2019.  The business community needs to be able to effectively utilise cloud-based services, video-conferencing, modern sales and marketing platforms, mobile data and other data heavy services.  The current data caps impede the ability to do so.”

Local services

If the Bill helped residents access data and downloads, then this would be an improvement, according to several speakers. Jason Lewis of Jaytec Ltd, argued that local businesses such as his could offer more services, if certain services such as email, web hosting, off-site backup and cloud storage were to be separated from the provision of telecommunications. This, he suggested, could facilitate remote access working from home, whether in Stanley or Camp. Other services, such as upgrading phone or PC software, could be done from a local server, rather than from the satellite link. This, he suggested, would be very low-cost compared to connections via the satellite. MLA Gavin Short queried whether there might be licensing issues with multiple downloads of software from a local server, but Nikki Buxton believed that there wouldn’t be.

Freedom of speech, and competition

Although many of the submissions had focussed on technical issues, Dick Sawle believed that the Licence Agreement with Sure could not be sensibly divorced from the Communications Bill. Both were central to the deal with Sure. But he left the technical points to others. He wanted to say that the proposed Bill would be an infringement of his human rights – specifically his freedom of expression, and would therefore be unconstitutional.

Mr Sawle continued, “I believe therefore that our Government has recognised that to prohibit self-provision by means of an exclusive licence is unconstitutional. However, the policy as agreed by Executive Council, is that the fees for obtaining a VSAT licence will be set so high and the application made so difficult, that effectively a licence becomes unobtainable. Freedom of Expression is non-negotiable and vitally important for a variety of reasons.”

Adding to that, Roger Spink explained that he had requested a connection at Moody Brook from Cable and Wireless, only to be told he was too far from Stanley. Mr Spink said that he then suggested he would self-provide and C&W connected him within a few weeks. Mr Spink added, “Further I believe the threat of self-provision by other businesses and individuals has moderated the behaviour of the licensee.”

Andrew Newman later pointed out that self-provision of telecoms by individuals had hardly seemed to make a dent in the increasing level of profits enjoyed by the operator, so he wondered why the new Bill devoted so much space to making it difficult.

Regulation.

Andrew Newman, among others, expressed doubt whether the proposed Regulator would have the powers necessary to police the supplier, and whether being part of FIG would mean the Regulator was truly independent.  Mr Newman offered his evidence as a private individual, albeit one with 12 years experience of working in FIG Regulation department, including 3 years regulating Telecomms.

Mr Newman suggested there was no rush to pass this Bill, as there were several years left on the current licence. He suggested that MLAs had failed since 1988 to regulate the industry, and did not see why that would change with the new arrangements. He believed a Regulatory Authority should be set up, separate from FIG. This Authority would need to be sufficiently staffed to be effective.

Mr Spink added his opinion on FIG regulation - “I am not convinced a regulator would protect individual’s interests as can be seen from some local instances such as the appalling and potentially damaging dust some residents and their children at Mink Park have to put up with. Despite individual members of the Government working hard for the community having been informed of this issue the Falkland Islands Government as an organisation has failed to address or respond to this matter for a number of years. Given the lack of action on such an issue why should consumers have any faith that a regulator would protect their interests on telecoms?”

Nikki Buxton agreed that, “a strong Telecoms Regulator is the key to this whole process – we have all seen the results of the lack of telecoms regulation during the past decade. The post of Telecoms Regulator has been denied funding for the past five years, and is now only proposed to be funded at £25-28,000 per year. The Falkland Islands needs an experienced, technologically competent telecoms regulator, and I can guarantee we will not get one for this salary.

“Without a strong regulator in place, all of the work of the Telecoms Working Group, and the Attorney General over the past two years on this issue will have been in vain, and we will be no further forward. The Bill and Licence are both overflowing with obligations which FIG are required to fulfil. I have to ask myself, are there personnel in place to carry out these obligations? Are there technical and legal consultants in place ready to help? Until now, very low standards in telecoms provision have been accepted by FIG, and this cannot be allowed to continue.

Oil and Gas

Pippa Christie, speaking as Deputy Country Manager for Premier Oil, told the committee that Premier Oil would like clarity on the status of oil rigs in Falkland Islands’ waters as “the treatment of production facilities in the EEZ (Economic Exclusion Zone) is not clear. Through discussion we understand that a possible interpretation is that a production facility which is "fixed" or tethered to the seabed could be considered an island and part of Falkland Islands territory, and consequently that an exclusive licence may be considered to apply to production facilities in the EEZ.”

Mrs Christie explained that “Premier is currently investigating communications options for the Sea Lion development and has not selected a preferred solution. Whether subject to the exclusive licence or not, Premier will be looking for a preferred solution for all activities, locations, infrastructure and contractors. There is a risk that the exclusive licence would prevent Premier from investigating the preferred solutions in the usual manner.”

“Premier believes it is in FIG’s interest to reserve for itself the power to issue new licences for oil and gas communication requirements which can be exercised as necessary at the time at which those requirements are known and technical solutions and providers can be identified.”

“This would allow FIG to make informed decisions at the time of Sea Lion Field Development Plan approval to ensure that maximum benefit is achieved for all relevant stakeholders.”

“Premier believes that an exclusive licensing position should not be applied to oil and gas developments prematurely and that FIG should reserve the power to issue licences for oil and gas development communications.”

Futhermore, explained Mrs Christie, Premier Oil suggested that FIG consider “additional communications licences to be awarded by FIG to third party providers in the right circumstances, and/or a FIG Amendment of Sure licence to allow for a FIG right to treat the provision of services to oil and gas businesses as non-exclusive under the licence.”

Chamber of Commerce view.

Mr Bragger explained the Chamber had lobbied for three years for improvements in the telecoms services. In general, businesses have had to develop workarounds to compensate for the poor services, such as having to use memory sticks and DHL, rather than the internet for exchanging data. The Chamber’s members would like the announced 2019 package offerings now rather than in 2019.  MLA Mike Summers asked if the Chamber could provide examples of the issues its members were dealing with. Mr Bragger agreed to supply these.

Speed of Progress.

Felicity Sawle, speaking as a private individual, took the Committee back to the early days of video cassettes, and pointed out how progress has meant we no longer use them, and DVDs are becoming less popular in favour of downloading or streaming films from the internet. Soon, it will be common to have PCs without hard drives, so that all data – books, photos, films and manuals would need to be accessed online. This would simply not be possible in the Falklands unless things drastically changed, she suggested. Activities like distance learning are almost impossible at the moment, said Miss Sawle..

Written submissions.

The Select Committee also received a number of written submissions from members of the public and local organisations. And we reproduce short extracts from these submissions, below.

Stephen Luxton, submitting in a personal capacity, and not as a FIG employee –

“There is insufficient evidence that the Bill provides sufficiently robust ability to control the apparently considerable profits made by the currently monopoly provider. These escalated profit levels are incompatible with the privileged position of a monopoly business and furthermore they would appear to increase into any notice period which cannot be reasonable. A business in a privileged position should be subject to extremely tight control on its activity and full disclosure of information to the regulator. It is arguable that since commercial confidentiality is largely redundant in a monopoly position, full disclosure of detailed accounts or at least key statistics should be made to the public, and that the requirement for this should be within the legislation.

Drew Irvine, customer of the licence holder -

Executive Summary

1. Profitability of the Licence holder

• Profitability and returns being made are excessive for a monopoly provider.

2. Self-provision

• Making alternatives accessible is the best way to ensure that the customer gets the best deal as regulation is no substitute for competition.

3. Lack of accounting transparency

• The profitability, returns and investments made under the exclusive licence need to be transparent, reported on a timely basis and in the public domain.

“As the licence holder has a monopoly which prevents competition there can be no argument that the information is commercially sensitive and its publication would somehow undermine the competitive position of the licence holder. The licence or bill should require the licence holder to include sufficient information in their annual accounts to enable the reader to ascertain how much is invested in FI and quantify the revenues and profits made in the Falkland Islands under the exclusive licence.”

4. Regulation

• Much faith is placed in the Regulator and Regulations despite the fact that this has failed in the past. Is this realistic and achievable?

The Falkland Islands Fishing Companies Association provided the committee with a lengthy and detailed written submission. For example, on the FIG Procurement Policy –

“We are concerned about the lack of following FIG guidelines on the procurement of services issued in August 2016. Whereby it states that the procurement of services should be obtained for the ‘best value for money’, ‘based on genuine and fair competition’, ‘withstand scrutiny by internal and external auditors and examiners’, ‘encourage an innovative market response’, ‘deliver a solution that meets our requirement’. We would suggest this seems to have been disregarded.”

The Legislative Assembly on the Communications Bill continued on Tuesday in the Court Chambers.

Each clause was reviewed and either agreed or amended or more information was requested. Although two MLAs (Hon Phyl Rendell and Hon Michael Poole) were away on FIG business in Brazil, the Attorney General, Peter Judge and Director of Central Services, Matt Bassford, were in attendance to offer advice.

The clause which required an exclusive licensee to retain communications data prompted a discussion on how, or whether, a licensee can be required to retain a copy of the data in the Falkland Islands. The Attorney General told the committee that he had had discussions at the recent Overseas Territories Attorney General’s conference on this topic. He noted that the data held in Microsoft’s Cloud application was actually held on servers in Ireland, and this had raised some concerns over the jurisdiction of such data.

MLA Dr Barry Elsby said that he would like to see data stored more securely rather than sent off the Falkland Islands. He believed it was a serious omission in Falklands’ laws that there was no effective data protection.

The Attorney General pointed out that the proposed law would be an improvement to the current process, whereby RFIP made requests for data of Sure. Under the proposed Ordinance, requests for data would have to be authorised by a Court Order or by the Governor.

The Select Committee will resume at 1.30 on December 5, in the Court Chambers.