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By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, May 10) - The Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas posted a record-high number of telephone lines during the first quarter this year at 30,362 lines, latest data from the Department of Commerce showed.

From less than 20,000 a few years back, the number of telephone lines laid out by Verizon Pacifica has now exceeded the 30,000 mark – at a time when the use of cellular phones and two-way radio systems have also increased.

James Santos, economist at Commerce’s economic development division, said the number of phone lines between January and March rose by 9 percent from 27,880 in the same period last year.

For at least the last five quarters, the number of phone lines ranged between 26,720 and 29,747.

Santos said the record-high figure during the first quarter was due mainly to the sharp increase in the number of commercial or business phone lines on Saipan, Tinian and Rota.

From only 16,189 business phone lines in the first quarter of 2003, the figure rose by 15 percent to 18,641 between January and March this year.

"It could mean there were lots of businesses that opened up and had these phone lines installed, or existing businesses put additional lines...There’s only a slight increase in the number of residential phone lines," Santos told Variety.

On the other hand, residential phone lines reached 11,721 – a slight 0.2 percent increase from 11,691 in the first quarter of 2003.

Santos added that the advent of mobile phones has not really affected the use of landlines.

"A lot of businesses and individuals still rely on landlines instead of cellphones," he said. The use of Internet, which also makes use of landlines, has also seen an increase in years, he added.

Data on the number of telephone lines helps the local government, as well as prospective foreign and local investors, in decision-making and implementing policies on the telecommunications and related industries.

In related news, the Commonwealth Telecommunications Commission recently approved Pacific Telecom Inc.’s $60 million purchase of Verizon’s assets in the CNMI.

However, Gov. Juan N. Babauta, who opposed the Verizon purchase to PTI, continues to challenge Verizon’s claim that it is not a monopoly.

The governor focused on the monopoly of Verizon spcifically on a fiber optic cable that connects the Commonwealth to Guam and the world – an asset that PTI will soon hold.

In a statement last week, the governor said he is still working with CTC to stop the transfer of the one cable as a monopoly from Verizon and PTI. The latter earlier said no one is prohibited from participating in the telecom business.

Babauta said such statements that Verizon does not have a monopoly are "incorrect" and "show a lack of candor to CTC and the community regarding the current state of telecommunications in the Commonwealth and a blatant disregard for the people’s best interest."

"There is only one inter-island cable and it is controlled by Verizon. Almost all communications within the Commonwealth are also controlled by Verizon. If PTI has its way, it will just fill Verizon’s dominant position. That is not in the public interest," said Babauta in a three-page statement.

The governor last week also proposed that PTI post a $10 million performance bond before it be allowed to take over the assets of Verizon in Micronesian Telecommunications Corp. The bond will ensure that the offshore subsidiary of Manila-based Citadel Holdings Inc. keeps to the settlement agreement with the government regarding the purchase of MTC.

May 10, 2004

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