BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Mar. 30, 2017–When the Government of Belize, under the Said Musa administration, opened the telecommunications market 15 years ago to allow competition with the formerly state-owned Belize Telecommunications Limited (now Belize Telemedia Limited — BTL), there was a protracted dispute between that company, then controlled by British billionaire Michael Ashcroft, and the Musa administration.
It has been described as a very tumultuous time, marked by immensely costly telecommunications deals, including the shuffling back and forth of BTL’s ownership between Ashcroft and American Jeffery Prosser, with whom the deal fell through, and then the transfer back to Ashcroft, with whom the Government later entered into the infamous accommodation agreement in an attempt to try to figuratively bury the Intelco hatchet.
Former PUC chairman, Dr. Gilbert Canton, says accommodation agreement was contrary to what they were trying to do to liberalize telecommunications
But the result was far from a peaceful arrangement, as litigation wars ensued. Even today, the successor administration of Prime Minister Dean Barrow continues to be embroiled in multiple litigation rounds at home and overseas.
Intelco reportedly failed, because it never got interconnection. Musa had said that the reason why the Government bought back BTL from Ashcroft was because of his resistance to interconnect. Then chairman of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), Dr. Gilbert Canton, with whom we recently spoke, recalls that there was an agreement between the parties on interconnection rates, but the arrangement never came to fruition, and after Prosser was unable to pay for BTL, Ashcroft resumed control of the company, maintaining his resistance to interconnect.
After Intelco folded, the then administration sealed the accommodation agreement with Ashcroft, arising after an agreement by Ashcroft for BTL to buy $19.2 million worth of Intelco assets.
When we spoke to Musa recently to try to get an understanding of why his Government never exercised its full authority to force interconnection, Musa said that they did try and while he said that an order was made, it appears that there was never anything in writing.
Canton, to whom Musa referred us, confirmed that there was never any formal written order. Canton went on to tell us that the accommodation agreement—which added hundreds of millions to the tab for BTL after the 2009 nationalization by the Barrow administration—was clearly contrary to the move at the time to liberalize the telecommunications market, because it offered perks to the dominant company on the market.
Ironically, Ashcroft had claimed that the reason for his refusal to interconnect with Intelco was that the playing-field was not a level one, and he called Intelco “a pension plan for the boys”—referring to Glenn D. Godfrey, the former owner of the now defunct Intelco, and key members of the then Musa administration. Ashcroft challenged an exclusive contractual arrangement between the Government and Intelco to establish a Wide Area Network—another arrangement which fell through, leaving the Government of Belize to fight even today a lawsuit from Godfrey for US$22 million and counting.