Global Telephony / June 1997
By Larry Luxner
Guyana, South America's only English-speaking nation, is known mainly as an exporter of gold, diamonds, rice and bauxite. It's also one of the most sparsely populated countries in the Western Hemisphere.
In an effort to end Guyana's isolation -- and deflect widespread criticism that it's not bringing basic phone service fast enough to rural subscribers -- Guyana Telephone & Telegraph is buying the latest in fixed wireless technology from Northern Telecom.
In late April, GT&T made regional history for when it replaced an antiquated rural analog switch with a fixed wireless access network for 2,000 suscribers in Anna Regina, 36 miles west of Georgetown, Guyana's capital. The area is so remote that dignitaries from GT&T and Nortel had to travel by boat to attend the inauguration ceremony.
The new contract is valued at $2.1 million. If successful, GT&T will duplicate the project in at least half a dozen other areas of Guyana starting with Georgetown, says Craig Knock, chief financial officer of GT&T's parent company, Atlantic Tele-Network.
"This is certainly a great product, it's competitively priced, deploys rapidly and solves a lot of distribution problems for us," said Knock, whose company is based in the U.S. Virgin Islands. "To date, we've invested over $90 million in GT&T capital improvements, and we will continue to invest in the telecom infrastructure of Guyana."
Nortel's Proximity I technology -- operating in the 3.5 GHz spectrum -- uses radio rather than copper cable to connect residences and businesses to the public switched telephone network, reducing time and costs of network construction. That in itself solves another problem common throughout this Idaho-sized country on the northern fringes of the Amazon: theft and vandalism of copper wire.
"One of the benefits of fixed wireless is that it's less expensive, and takes less time to deploy," said Ernesto Ortiz of Nortel's Caribbean/Latin American operations. Nortel's Proximity I solution being deployed for GT&T offers customers toll voice quality and a wide range of new services such as call transfer, conference calling, data and fax services. It also enables the network to eventually offer ISDN and 64 Kbps data.
According to Ortiz, "fixed wireless access uses the same technology as does cellular, 800-mHZ mobile communications, except that the subscribers aren't mobile. There are different configurations.This is a 3.5-GHz frequency system that was designed specifically to be a fixed wireless system. The home phones don't look unlike what we would have in a wired system. The difference is that instead of having a wire running to a telephone pole, you've got a flat-plate antenna on the outside of the building which communicates with a base station."
GT&T General Manager Thomas Minnich, who before coming to the tropics ran a small phone company in Alaska, says "GT&T's goal is to provide advanced telecom services to all regions of Guyana, in a timely manner. We selected Nortel for this project, because its fixed wireless solution not only meets our technical requirements, but also allows us to promptly deploy a network with a low initial investment."
As part of a 1992 framework accord, Nortel has agreed to modernize GT&T's network. As such, it has provided 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, about 800 subscribers have signed up.
ATN, which bought an 80% share of GT&T from the Guyanese government in 1991, concedes that all this new investment stems in part from local unhappiness over Guyana's leading role in audiotext, known by some critics as phone sex, and by others as "dial-a-porn."
In 1996, the company logged 122.5 million minutes of audiotext traffic -- nearly twice the amount of conventional inbound and outbound long-distance calls combined. That audiotext traffic generates over $100 million in annual revenues, enabling GT&T to boost the number of access lines in Guyana from 13,000 six years ago to 51,000 today.
But that's not enough to satisfy Guyana's 750,000 inhabitants, whose per-capita income is among the lowest in the Americas.
"Five years later, the situation has not changed dramatically," stated a recent Inter Press Service dispatch from Georgetown. "Phone service is still unreliable, and many rural and coastal towns remain without telephones, forcing residents to travel miles to urban centers to place their calls."
While ATN admits that the majority of audiotext volume consists of U.S. and overseas callers dialing up chat lines and pre-recorded sex lines, it insists that without it, the company would never be able to afford fixed wireless and other technological improvements.
"By virture of audiotext, we have completely subsidized all telecommunications in Guyana," says Knock. "A good example is local phone service, which costs only 25 U.S. cents per month. We also subsidize outbound calls costing as low as 72 cents a minute to the United States."
Added Minnich: "If audiotext died tomorrow, we'd be in real trouble because of the low rates. The Guyanese people can't use [audiotext services] anyway, so we switch it, send it back and forth, and pour the money back into the system. If the government would give us sufficient rates to let the company stand on its own, we would eliminate our dependence on audiotext altogether."