Sunday, April 14, 2024

THE HOYOS FILE: Last gasps of the dying cartel


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There was a time when big companies, which were the only ones with the capital to buy and implement expensive technology, ruled the roost.

In Barbados, for example, there was one phone company and one electricity company.

And there was only one oil refiner, in those days when it was determined that we had to refine the stuff locally. For a long time there was only one daily newspaper. And when another one came along, it didn’t have enough – that is correct – capital to sustain itself through the ad-starved years.

Of course, for years and years there was only one radio station, a wired service. And then only one (Government-owned) broadcasting radio/TV station.

In the case of electricity, the local utility was never given monopoly control over the creation of electricity, so it has always been the citizen’s right to, say, own a diesel generator if he wanted, and nowadays to put some photovoltaic panels on the roof.

Perhaps somewhere deep down the legislators realised you could not give a company a monopoly over what, up until then, only nature could create.

Cable and Wireless had the monopoly on landlines, and – in the first years – mobile telephones, and at least here in Barbados, telephone and PBX equipment. I know it seems hard to imagine your five-year-old grandson playing full-colour action games on his parent’s mobile phone while you also watch satellite television.

In all these cases, technology eventually came to the rescue. Perhaps except for the refinery, which was set up here for God-only-knows what reason, and has left its sludgy signature all over Needham’s Point.

Today, tech moves so fast that it is continuing to  undermine the large companies’ ability to maintain their, if not monopolies, near-monopolies in their respective industries.

As a result, you see these otherwise tough competitors who fight each other every day for market share coming together to keep out the common threat.

In Jamaica, and maybe here in Barbados soon if not already implemented, we have Cable & Wireless’ LIME and O’Brien’s Digicel banning their common enemy, the popular VOIP (Voice-Over-Internet) competitors, headed by Viber, from using their 3G networks.

However, over the next few years, the fast-increasing number of Wi-Fi hotspots will continue to undermine their ability to control the market for voice and text calls, as consumers will be able to use these apps over the Internet without too much of a break in access.

Here in Barbados we have the Fair Trading Commission succumbing to the arguments of the Barbados Light and Power Co. Ltd and overturning their own decision to allow customers to use electricity from their own renewable energy in tandem with the electricity they buy from the privately owned national grid, unless they first “sell all” to the BL&P.

This effort is easily thwarted as long as you have your own batteries, and perhaps a diesel generator to top up your renewable electricity production, should the supply of raw material become too “intermittent” on a cloudy day.

There would be no need to connect your little renewable energy system to the grid at all.

Another near-monopoly, one created by legislation, but nevertheless functioning as a cartel in terms of driving prices way too high across the economy and affecting both visitors’ and citizens’ pocketbooks alike, is the local manufacturing sector.

For way too long a list of products, most of which are not made here and never will be, have incurred ridiculous duties at the port, which are passed on to consumers.

Even manufacturers know they are so high as to impede our increasingly service-based and consumer-driven economy, but it has been political heresy to even call for their removal or reduction to reasonable levels where an item is actually made locally.

With last week’s announcement by Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler that a full package of tax concessions should become law anytime now, a gasp from this particular dying cartel was heard in the minister’s addendum that some sort of memorandum of understanding would have to be signed by hoteliers who wish to be granted these duty-free concessions, even though the big dog wearing the comfortable footwear was not required to do the same.

However, no follow-on was announced – that is, that these tariffs would also be removed for restaurants outside of hotels or for the general public, that is, the consumer.

It sometimes takes longer than you might think to kill off the near-monopoly.

But through the wide availability of new technologies and apps being produced today, plus the increasingly strong influence of the consumer, who now stands at the centre of our economy, new pathways are always being found.

The great thing about technology today is it’s democratic nature. It may have created a lot of big companies, but it has also empowered the average consumer across almost every industry. And it seems to me that the consumers are the ones gaining the most ground.


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