The two key foundations of a healthy e-business sector are a de-regulated and competitive telecommunications sector, and a flexible regulatory structure for electronic communications and e-business.
The Bahamas Government is well aware of these two priorities. The Telecommunications Act 2000 paved the way for privatisation of the Bahamas Telecommunications Corporation (BaTelCo), creating a new legal regulatory framework for telecommunications in The Bahamas, removing the monopoly rights of BaTelCo, and establishing a licensing regime for telecommunications. The Government will ensure that a majority of the privatised BaTelCo will remain in Bahamian hands, through share offerings and Government retention of a stake in the new company.The telecommunications infrastructure is critical to the Bahamas' future prospects.
The Government is now in the final phase of the privatization of BaTelCo, having identified a short list of strategic partners. The Government is keen to ensure that any strategic partner will have both the technical expertise and experience as well as the financial resources to manage BaTelCo and develop it into a state of the art telecommunications company.
The new Public Utilities Commission (PUC) created by the Act is an independent and transparent regulatory authority, and has been crucial in jump-starting the development of high-speed Internet access in the Bahamas. Previously, the state-owned BaTelCo had done little to offer more than the most basic of Internet services.
In April 2001 the PUC issued a telecommunications licence to Caribbean Crossings Ltd (CCL), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cable Bahamas Ltd, to provide bulk telecommunications transmission capacity over the licensed systems for the carriage of data and internet services. This new submarine fiber-optic cable system will link the Bahamian Islands of Grand Bahama, New Providence, Eleuthera and Abaco to the United States.
Meanwhile, the Government is working on legislation to underpin e-business, but it is aware of the risks as well as the opportunities. Finance Minister Sir William Allen recently spoke about the the need for a strict regulatory body to govern the process of online trading based in the Bahamas, saying: 'Borderless e-business in this virtual environment can also mean uncertainty and risk, creating new challenges for those charged with regulating the market.' He said the regulatory body would uncover 'valuable opportunities, gain competitive advantage, and build shareholder value in the cyber marketplace, which requires systems that are aligned and integrated.'
An internal e-business working group within the Ministry of Finance has constructed a business plan for the government's component of the transition to e-business and the establishment of a government e-business office. Three pieces of e-business legislation are making progress through the legislative system:
- an Electronic Communications Act, which will provide amongst other things for the legal recognition of electronic transactions, electronic contracts, electronic signatures, etc, on the same footing as their paper based equivalents and the supervision of intermediaries and e-business service providers;
- a Computer Misuse Act, which would criminalize certain wrongful interventions involving computers, their systems, and transmissions via computers, such as hacking; and
- a Data Protection (Privacy of Information) Act, designed to guarantee certain rights to individuals in respect of the use of personal information collected in relation to them, consistent with international standards on such protection. This Act would allow the Bahamas to gain 'safe harbour' recognition from the EU under its data protection legislation - a vital component of international acceptability for e-business purposes.
The Government is also focussing on the need to create an e-literate population. An initiative to promote e-learning is well underway with the commencement of the computerization of primary schools. Currently a pilot exercise is taking place to test an interactive instructional system which integrates the use of computers into the teaching process to reinforce instruction. Twenty-seven schools across the Bahamas, both within New Providence and the Family Islands have been chosen for the pilot, and seven of these schools are now interactive and are utilizing the Internet for resource purposes.
Discussions are also underway with the College of The Bahamas to develop programmes that will integrate into the existing curriculum, courses designed to meet the demands and skills requirements of the IT industry in the short, medium and long-term.
For its part, the Bahamas Financial Services Board has spearheaded the establishment of a private-sector E-Business Working Group, with the intent of bringing together all the diverse groups and companies currently involved in the industry and to develop a cohesive approach to the long-term development of e-business in The Bahamas.
"We see ourselves as a catalyst stimulating a collective effort by the private sector. Such a collective effort is essential if The Bahamas is to have an opportunity to participate in the benefits to be found in transitioning our society to participate fully in a digital economy" says BFSB's CEO & Executive Director Wendy C. Warren. She further points out that the BFSB is well positioned as an independent private sector organisation to cause companies that may typically compete to explore issues and formulate solutions necessary for industry and national development, in strong dialogue with government.
Over thirty companies and associations comprise the E-Business Working Group, representing interests in financial services, infrastructure development and support, evolving e-business ventures and consultancy services. Barry J. Malcolm, Executive Vice President of the Grand Bahama Port Authority, and a BFSB Director, serves as Chairman, with Ms. Warren serving as Deputy Chairman.
The Working Group concluded an assessment of e-business in The Bahamas and presented a report to Government on key issues, including short to mid-term recommendations of action steps considered essential for timely industry development. Sectoral areas targeted for review in this process include Banking & Finance, Connectivity, Credit Card Clearance, Education, Fulfillment, Legislation and Regulation, and Promotion.