The mood around Fiji’s telecommunications industry right now is a bit like a mango stuck in the windpipe of an elephant. It doesn’t really make much sense and the sounds of gasping fill the air around us.
I’m pretty close to this industry because I’ve worked in it and with it for much of my career, both in Fiji and elsewhere. To be a fly on the wall behind the doors of some of these communications company boardrooms now would be a real treat. Outside of rumour, for which there is plenty, there still haven’t been any announcements regarding the monopoly’s end and how it’s all breaking down. What we’re experiencing now, however, certainly feels like a drastic change. In the course of just a few weeks, we’ve seen Telecom, Connect, Unwired and newcomer Voicenet IP all begin offering affordable international telephony.
Cheaper calling rates are often the most visible and immediate impact of a competitive telecommunications market and we’re seeing them take hold now. Three months ago, a call to Australia was 75 cents per minute over our regular phone lines. Three weeks ago, it was 60 cents per minute. A current Telecom Fiji promotion brings the cost down to just 30 cents per minute while the other providers are less than half of that. These are huge pricing changes in a very short amount of time.
Although the death of the monopoly might be commonly referred to, the truth is that we are not entering a time where the telecommunications industry in Fiji is dismantled at all. Instead, we will soon be living in an oligopoly, a state of LIMITED competition controlled by a small number of suppliers. In other words, the monopolies aren’t dead. They just have a few more friends around the grog bowl.
Now, I should be straight. I love telecommunications and what it’s doing for both the local neighbourhood and the global neighbourhood. That written, telecommunications companies worldwide have historically pushed customers around so we tend to be open to any change in that relationship. If a telecom was a schoolboy, he would be the big one standing by the sliding board and only letting the kids he liked to have a turn. He would be the massive child with no-neck standing between you and the game-winning try. He would be the one with the hottest girlfriend. Interestingly, he would also be the one wearing the John Travolta white suit from Saturday Night Fever with flared bottoms, black polyester shirt and patent leather shoes. Yeah, they’ve got the power and the moves but they’re not always so up-to-date. I’m beating this metaphor to death so I better move on.
It’s important to remember that long distance and local calling rates are far from the only changes Fiji will be seeing as a result of the monopoly’s metamorphosis into something else. I put much more value on declining Internet access fees, faster connections and greater capacity than anything else. I write that fully realising the majority of Fiji’s population is not yet online much less care about the difference between 56K dial-up and 2MB broadband Internet access.
Whatever is going on inside those closed boardrooms, the reality is that the people on this side of the doors are the ones who benefit. For that, we have much to be thankful for. The real threat to the old monopolies is not new competition but instead, the consumer power which is emerging through environments like the Internet. The monopolies are being forced to change, not by the government but by the people.
This entire topic touches on industries beyond telecommunications as well. It’s not a coincidence that the television monopoly is following a similar path at the same time. The two industries are finding themselves as unlikely competitors too. It has been a while since telecommunications was just about the telephone anyway. The existence of the Internet and related services provide me with video of EVERY television show I’ve ever wanted to watch, WHENEVER I want to watch it. Every North American ice hockey game which, for years, was out of my reach is now readily available and accessible. I would probably need to wait for it to snow in Fiji before a local television company offered me ice hockey games. No longer.
It’s about the people now. Communications anarchy is upon us and again, the Internet is exposing itself as the great equaliser of our society. It will erode the dominance and power of the largest media houses (as it’s already doing quite effectively), it will break down the telecommunications monopolies around the world (which we’re seeing the impact of already in Fiji) and it will empower the poorest people in the most distant corners of the earth with a voice previously unavailable to them.
I’ve written a number of times before questioning how Fiji will change. For any change to really take hold, it has to start with businesses embracing the Internet and specifically, letting their employees embrace it as well. Until that happens, I think it’s growth will be stymied as well as the growth of the larger ICT industry. There is still way too much fear that business efficiency will suffer when employees are given access to the Internet. Ironically, this is hurting the very productivity management believes it’s trying to protect. With better tools, come better skills and better services. Provide customer service and support through email. Put up a website, even a basic one. Give your staff email accounts. Now’s the time.
The revolution is here, people. Reach down the throat of the elephant, pull out that mango and rip it apart with your teeth. Actually, I really have no idea what this last line means but it certainly captures some of the frenzy around us.
From FijiTimes 15 Dec, 2007
Jonathan Segal is the Managing Director and CEO of Oceanic Communications (www.oceanic.com.fj), an advertising, marketing and technology agency in Suva. Feel free to send comments and topic suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org