By Robert A. Emmanuel
Prime Minister Gaston Browne, over the weekend, added his voice to the ongoing public spat between the Government of Antigua and Barbuda and one of the major telecommunications companies operating in the country.
Speaking on his radio station on Saturday, Browne stated that his government will not hesitate to buy out competitors to ensure that the Antigua Public Utilities Authority (APUA) would not be left behind in the telecoms market.
“I have already sent a message to the owner of Digicel to tell him that APUA is willing to buy them, so let’s talk, if that is the way we need to resolve this,” he said.
“If one has to go, it will not be APUA so they better understand that. We must recognise that the telecoms space is somewhat overcrowded because the market is so small. So it really justifies a monopoly, at best two players, so if one has to leave, it will not be APUA. So, between Digicel and Flow, they need to make up their minds.”
The current dispute has been over the 850-megahertz range spectrum, which Digicel and Flow have had a longstanding licence to use.
The government has announced plans to re-allocate the 850-megahertz spectrum to the benefit of APUA; however Digicel and Flow have secured a court order to prevent the government from doing so.
Browne said that government does not intend to disrupt competition’s service, but wants to ensure that APUA gets equal benefit to the spectrum instead.
“All we said to them was ‘dress over, small up yourselves and make a likkle space’; we are not trying to disrupt their service. I mean, we said to them, ‘we will work with you to make sure that there is a minimal or no disruption to your service,” he said.
Browne added that the government has brought in independent telecommunications analysts to advice it on the matter.
“We have been advised by local persons that the spectrum can be shared, so we are now getting an external firm that has no skin in the game to advise us and on the basis that they confirm that the spectrum can be shared, Digicel and Flow can jump high, they can jump low, but they have to share. It is either share or leave and we make no apologies about it [because] it is our asset,” he said. “It does not belong to any court either, so going to the court ask the court to give it to you, it is not the court’s thing.”
Browne blamed the former United Progressive Party (UPP) administration for the current situation, arguing that the Spencer administration “displaced APUA and gave Digicel all of the lucrative spectrum so that when a tourist comes to the island, everyone of them who turn on their phone — you know who the roaming revenue goes to? Digicel and Flow. APUA gets none because they don’t have that type of low frequency spectrum.”
“So, you are telling me that APUA, that is owned by the government and people of Antigua and Barbuda, that we must sit down as a government and to allow that
to continue?” he said.
The sudden escalation between the parties arose from a social media post by Minister of Public Utilities, Sir Robin Yearwood, who blamed a former telecommunications official for the allocation to Digicel.
On Friday, Sir Robin stated on Facebook, “Over the years APUA, an Antiguan Telecoms Company has suffered by the actions of a Telecommunications Officer who was responsible to be fair and neutral in issuing licences and spectrum.”
He added, “The Telecommunications Officer’s actions have disadvantaged APUA Telecoms. APUA is a wholly State-owned company owned by the Government and people of Antigua and Barbuda. My friends please read the undermentioned letter.”