By APC 15 November 2011
Several sectors in Venezuela are undergoing transformations, and the telecommunications sector is no exception. The present government, which has been in power for roughly fourteen years, is promoting a socialist model of development, by means of national plans, legislative reforms and presidential decrees, that has brought about significant changes in the telecommunications sector, regarded as a strategic area to ensure political stability in the country.
The government has taken measures and financed projects to create opportunities for participation by various communities at national, regional and international levels, to strengthen the power of the people and democratise the spectrum. However, in many cases its expressed intentions have not come to fruition. Different Venezuelan and international actors have expressed concern about far-reaching issues in the telecommunications sector, including:
a) The attachment of the National Commission on Telecommunications (CONATEL – Comisión Nacional de Telecomunicaciones) to the Vice-Presidency, by means of presidential decree number 7,588, regarded as a measure that undermines the impartiality and independence of the industry regulator.
b) Reforms of the Comprehensive Law on Telecommunications (LOT – Ley orgánica de telecomunicaciones) and the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio, Television and Electronic Media (RESORTE – Ley de responsabilidad social en radio, televisión y medios electrónicos), that were fundamental for the management of the telecommunications sector, but that were not debated in all sectors of society, and which introduced greater restrictions on the telecommunications transport network and value-added services like internet, social networks, assignment of domains, and so on.
c) Presidential decree number 6,449 which declares the internet to be a “luxury item” in the public sector (including universities), in direct contrast to the earlier executive decree number 825, which “declares internet access and use to be a priority policy and [affirms] its credentials as a tool for global interrelation and the promotion of national and regional territorial development”.
d) Discretionary use of the universal service fund (FSU – Fondo de servicio universal) to provide a connection to government agencies, to the detriment of its purpose to favour connectivity in rural areas, and delays in projects like the National Transport Network, which was supposed to create development opportunities in disadvantaged areas.
e) The promulgation of new laws like the Community and Alternative Media Law, which is open to arbitrary interpretations.
f) The revocation of spectrum concessions to private media that oppose the government, the closure of open signal radio and television broadcasters and the arbitrary nature of government actions, recently shown by the imposition of a fine of two million dollars on a television channel (Globovisión) for the alleged offence of reporting a prison riot.
In its zeal to consolidate a socialist model for the nation, the Venezuelan government has centralised the telecommunications sector, controlling the spectrum and implementing policies that regulate its use and commercial exploitation. To this end, it has strengthened technical and legal measures governing spectrum use, revoked concessions to private media and assigned them instead to community and socialist broadcasters, and implemented projects like the Simón Bolívar satellite to create access opportunities for disadvantaged sectors under the discretionary powers of the bodies responsible for its use. It has also auctioned portions of the spectrum to open up mobile telephony services and internet access, and promoted exploitation of the open frequency spectrum in order to develop wireless broadband networks in public sectors as well as initiating expropriation procedures against private sector companies while supporting the development of community media, among other measures.
Through these actions, the government is making efforts to broaden the use of the spectrum, promote social inclusion, eliminate oligopolies and stimulate telecommunications penetration, but it runs the risk of weakening private media and discouraging investment by telecommunications companies because of the country’s legal insecurity.
It has been observed that strategic projects managed by the government, which theoretically could develop telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas and create access opportunities for disadvantaged populations, are being paralysed and replaced by other developments that are subject to the discretion and management capabilities of civil servants.
These changes, introduced in the late stages of technical programmes without any coherent logical structure, may be determined more by the government’s own interests rather than the essential development of the state.
It is important to note that the private sector has to some extent succeeded in extending its reach to include disadvantaged sectors, offering mobile broadband services and internet access, and that government entities have also established wireless networks for the benefit of local users. However, these investments by the private and government sectors have not been sufficient to meet demand in areas with low population density, and in rural zones.
In this situation, the following steps are imperative:
- State agencies must have sufficient autonomy for the interests of the state to prevail over those of the government of the day
- The government must promote social cohesion and reconciliation, so as to unite efforts aimed at benefiting disadvantaged sectors and those lacking telecommunications services
- The government must be vigilant over the spending of universal service fund resources designated for telecommunications development
- The agencies responsible for telecommunications must maintain neutrality in their technical and legal actions
- The government must provide incentives for the private sector so that together they can consolidate an investment plan that contributes to the development of the telecommunications sector
- The government must continue to promote inclusion programmes that facilitate access to services.
The different actors in Venezuelan society should continue to be vigilant, to participate in programmes that promote the country’s development, and to critically monitor the measures and reforms implemented by the government, as well as the management of the resources to which all Venezuelans are entitled without interference by political or economic interests.
_This is a synthesis of the research conducted in Venezuela by Sandra Benítez and Ermanno Pietrosemoli for EsLaRed, as part of APC’s initiative Open Spectrum for development, which aims to provide an understanding of spectrum regulation by examining the situation in Africa, Asia and Latin America. This project is part of the ‘Action Research Network’ initiative, funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC)._