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Fighting Isolation: The Forgotten Guianas
Tele.Com / October 16, 1999

By Larry Luxner

Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana -- three small countries on the northern edge of South America that are collectively known as "the Guianas" -- are relying on the latest telecom technology to reduce their geographic isolation from the rest of the world.

The most populous of the three is Guyana, which has about 800,000 inhabitants and is South America's only English-speaking country. Guyana Telephone & Telegraph, the national phone monopoly, is 80% owned by Atlantic Tele-Network (ATN) of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Since ATN bought GT&T from the Guyanese government in 1991 for $16.5 million, it has invested over $100 million in the company, increasing the number of lines from 13,000 to around 60,000.

As part of a 1992 framework accord, Northern Telecom has agreed to modernize GT&T's network. As such, it is installing DMS switches in Guyana's two most important cities, Georgetown and New Amsterdam. At the moment, 95% of GT&T's access lines are digitally switched. An Intelsat B earth station in Georgetown, which provides the main link between Guyana and the outside world, has been upgraded several times to boost the number of circuits in operation from 75 in 1991 to 1,026 today. GT&T has also begun offering Internet access to Guyanese businesses and individuals; so far, over 1,000 subscribers have signed up.

Most of GT&T's revenues derive from phone sex, known politely as "audiotext" -- a technology that lets overseas callers dial up chat lines and pre-recorded sex lines. But because of competition from the Dominican Republic, Moldova, Montserrat and other offshore jurisdictions, audiotext traffic declined by 43% in 1998. While several Guyanese leaders have criticized audiotext, GT&T argues that without it, the company -- which reported $94.6 million in 1998 revenues -- would never be able to subsidize fixed wireless and other necessary improvements.

In neighboring Suriname, home to 450,000 people, state-owned Telecommunicatiebedrijf Suriname (Telesur) has 60,000 conventional and 5,000 cellular customers. The former Dutch colony is gradually deregulating telecom services, with the goal of boosting teledensity from the current 15 lines per 100 to at least 20 per 100.

"Telesur is still 100% government owned, and at this point there are no decisions on privatizing the company. What is being discussed is having a second operator within Suriname, and providing a license to that second operator to be in service as quickly as possible," says Telesur's chief financial officer, Dirk Curry. "In my opinion, the introduction of competition will be beneficial to customers."

In 1997, Nortel signed a $10 million contract to upgrade Telesur's fixed network. The deal includes 10,000 fixed wireless access lines and 7,000 mobile lines for Paramaribo and its suburbs. In an unrelated venture, Phoenix Wireless Group has sold its AMPS-based local loop system to International Communication Management Services, a private operator offering fixed wireless, mobile telephony, Internet access and overseas long-distance throughout Suriname.

French Guiana -- home of the Ariane space complex in Kourou, from which many of the world's telecom satellites are launched -- is the most economically advanced of the three Guianas. That's because it's not an independent nation but rather an overseas department of France. Phone service is provided by France Telecom, which has 40,450 access lines. Direct telephone links to France are available, while traffic to other European countries and the rest of the world is routed through the Caribbean island of Martinique.

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