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Belize: E-Commerce

Introduction

Like many offshore jurisdictions, Belize has ambitions to be a leading e-commerce location, and it was early in passing legislation to enable and regulate internet gambling. This has been successful in attracting some operators, although the tax regime isn't all that wonderful.

In order to strengthen the country's telecommunications infrastructure, the government in 2003 moved to increase competition in the sector by allowing Innovative Communication Corporation, LLC to acquire a controlling stake in Belize Telecommunications Ltd (now known as Belize Telemedia Limited, or BTL), the national telephone company of Belize whose monopoly expired earlier that year from existing owners Carlisle Holdings Limited.

However, the telecoms development strategy hit a setback when, in February 2005, the Belizean government seized back control of BTL from ICC after accusing the firm of failing to pay more then USD57 million due to it under the sale agreement. A complex international legal dispute ensued, and after failing to obey a March 11, 2005 ruling by a US District Court ordering Belize to restore control of BTL to ICC, the government of then Prime Minister Said Musa was on 31 March, 2005, found in contempt of court and fined USD50,000 a day.

On August 31 2005, ICC filed a Memorandum of Law in Miami restoring ICC's Jeffrey Prosser as Chairman of the Board of Directors of BTL.

In 2006, however, the court rescinded its ruling against Belize, and the government reportedly attempted to re-sell shares in BTL to British peer Lord Ashcroft, who had previously owned them.

Despite the ongoing legal dispute over the ownership of BTL between its two dominant shareholders, (Michael Ashcroft and ICC), the Belize Senate approved on May 29, 2007, the controversial Belize Telecommunications Undertaking (Belize Telecommunications Limited Operations) Vesting Act, which transferred all of the goodwill, properties, assets, obligations and rights of Belize Telecommunications Limited to a new entity known as Belize Telemedia Limited.

On August 25, 2009, by virtue of an Act of Legislature of Belize, the Government of Belize became the owner of the majority of the shares in Belize Telemedia Limited. The remaining shares are owned by 908 small shareholders.

Prices for Internet access are on a sliding scale and are expensive at approximately USD50 for 128K and USD250 for 2MB. Satellite providers do exist but BTL is considered as having a practical monopoly on internet service. VOIP services including Skype are blocked by BTL. Addressing a business forum in November 2011, Prime Minister Dean Barrow assured his audience that VOIP "is coming".

The Prime Minister announced in April 2013: "At the end of this month, tomorrow, BTL will enable full and open access to VOIP based services and applications in Belize. ... This will mean the use of high speed internet services including DSL, wireless internet and mobile internet and will mean that there won't be any restrictions whatsoever on Voice Over Internet Protocol. ... Technology is moving so quickly that we would have been playing a loosing game if we had continued trying to restrict VOIP."

In 2005, BTL began rolling out new wireless internet services, starting with the launch of the Internet HotSpot service in June that year. This increased internet accessibility for business travellers and tourists by providing high-speed wireless access in large hotels, airports and other transit points. Later in the same month, BTL expanded its wireless internet coverage to areas outside of the coverage of its wired DSL service.

In 2000 the Government encouraged the opening of a private e-commerce park, opened by Datapro International Inc in the Belize City Export Processing Zone (EPZ) thereby guaranteeing freedom from taxes to incoming dotcoms.

The park, the only one in the region, has successfully stimulated Belize's e-business sector. It has generated over 650 full time jobs so far and is growing rapidly.

Office space is being offered in 1,000 to 2,000 sq. ft. units in individual or shared buildings equipped with all utilities on a 24 hour guarded gated compound: pre-installed fiber optic cable, fiber optic link, satellite communication center, and support facilities are available. The park has six buildings already built with a total capacity of over 100,000 sq.ft., fully airconditioned. The park's private operator provides its own long distance service independently from the local carrier, 1-800 telephone service and a technical training center. The location is only minutes from the International Airport and about 15 minutes from the commercial center of Belize, Belize City.

Companies in an Export Processing Zone benefit from a highly attractive tax and customs regime. An on-site Customs Office guarantees rapid delivery of incoming goods. Bandwidth is available from 64K to T1 at rates between USD950 and USD14,200. These are all-inclusive costs including the installation of underground fiber optic cables with direct satellite connection.

For on-line betting and gaming operators, a particularly attractive feature of the park is the coupling of the IBC regime with that of the Export Processing Zone regime, a result which legally bypasses the need for licencing under the Computer Wagering Licensing Act. The Attorney General has confirmed that once an e-business is validly established through the park's official attorneys Glenn D. Godfrey & Co., (www.offshoreservices.com) there is no need for any other license.

Although the E-Park is evidence of progress, local firm the Belize Development Trust says that e-commerce will struggle to develop outside the Zone: 'There should be about 4 different, or maybe more, local competitive telephone systems, with regulatory sharing agreements and price sharing for using each other's installations in an overlapping manner. There also should be at the current state of progress, about 100 local ISP services around the nation using the telephone services of the 4 telecommunications suppliers.'

In November 2007, The Ministry of National Development signed an agreement with Infotel International Limited, granting them Export Processing Zone (EPZ) status to establish a call centre operation and ICT business in Belize City.

Under the investment plan, Infotel will provide data and voice processing services, including telemarketing, customer support, direct marketing, e-mail and website hosting, as well as other call centre services. Infotel has already established firm business relations with a number of international companies through its marketing alliance with Strategic Link Consulting Ltd, which operates out of Atlanta in the USA.

The approval for Infotel to operate in Belize is part of a new thrust by the government of Belize to expand the EPZ programme to include ICT companies, especially since they create higher income jobs for Belizeans. At the time of the agreement, two local companies managed ICT parks and a total of five ICT companies were operating as EPZs in these parks. These companies include Ready Call Ltd., an international call centre operation, and Pinnacle BST, an ICT application service, call centre support and software consulting company. It is expected that employment at these ICT companies with EPZ status would increase from less than 1,000 to over 2,000 within two years.

In April 2008, Belize Telemedia Limited announced that it was replacing the telephone equipment in six rural areas, with new state-of-the-art telecommunication switches that will provide High Speed Internet and many other services to business and residential customers. The project was part of the company’s commitment to provide a more reliable telecommunications network across the country, ensuring uniformity in telecommunication services throughout Belize. The project was initiated in November 2007 with residents of August Pine Ridge benefiting from the first installation.

In a press release on 23 March, 2010, Belize Telemedia announced that: "DigiCell service was recently expanded to Sittee River Village in Southern Belize. Residents of this area are now able to benefit from the many exciting services, innovative features and special deals being offered to DigiCell customers.

This expansion is another step in the Company’s goal to continuously improve and extend DigiCell service throughout Belize. In 2009 the Company completed the installation of the GSM 850 1900 MHz network which significantly improved DigiCell coverage, capacity and services in many areas of the country. Then, to furtherexpand the new GSM Network and provide even greater coverage, new cell sites have been installed in Ladyville, Bermudian Landing, Gallon Jug, Progresso, Pomona, Big Falls and now Sittee River.

While residents of Sittee River enjoy Belize’s premier mobile cellular service, customers in Sarteneja, August Pine Ridge and many other rural communities can look forward to having access to DigiCell service in their villages as additional cell sites are scheduled for installation over the next few months. This is great news for all DigiCell customers as they will be able to use their DigiCell phones in these new areas, thereby improving their freedom of communication while traveling throughout Belize."

 

 

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