By Theresa Goodwin
Prime Minister Gaston Browne has rolled up his sleeves and launched a renewed attack on the Irish-owned telecommunications provider Digicel as the fight intensifies to ensure that the Antigua Public Utilities Authority (APUA) obtains a slice of the existing 850-megahertz spectrum currently being utilized by the other two companies operating in the country.
Browne drew the battle line on Saturday, by announcing a two-pronged approach that the government has adopted going forward, and declaring that, “it is a political issue and we have to fight them politically”.
He explained that the government has decided to counter-sue Digicel in particular, which has secured a High Court order preventing the government from sharing with APUA any of the 850-megahertz spectrum it has been allocated.
When the order was secured in May, Digicel stated that it had taken the legal action because it wanted to shield its customers from “significant service disruption and a negative impact on coverage”.
But during an interview on his radio station on Saturday, Browne said: “Digicel are the ones which have most of the lucrative spectrum and again it is a national asset. They have a lease on this asset until next year, so worst-case scenario, is that we wait until next year to deal with them.”
“If they want to have good relations with my government, then they have to cooperate. When it comes to protecting the national asset, I have been hostile, and I have been hostile to them because I gave the General Manager a few choice words to give his principal back in Ireland,” Browne said.
The matter surrounding the allocation of spectrum was thoroughly ventilated by the Cabinet of Antigua and Barbuda last Wednesday.
Two experts accompanied by senior APUA officials were invited to address the issues of the sharing of the 850-megahertz band, and the Fiber-To-Home (FTH) challenge which the APUA has contemplated initiating.
According to the weekly Cabinet notes, the unidentified experts explained that APUA had been completely closed-out from this important lower frequency band.
The experts explained that the reason people in their homes hear the base transmissions of sound trucks, even before they can hear the trucks’ music, is that the base is of very low frequency capable of piercing walls—much like the 850-megahertz band transmits low frequency signals.
According to Cabinet, the 850-megahertz band is divided between the British telecoms company FLOW and Digicel, with one occupying 11 and the other the remaining 10 frequencies.
Meanwhile, PM Browne said based on the explanations in Cabinet, it was clear that there was a conspiracy to destroy APUA PCS and render it unviable.
“Now that we are investing millions into APUA PCS we recognize that if APUA is not given any of that low frequency spectrum, then all the millions we are investing will go down the drain,” he said.
The nation’s leader further stated that the Cabinet was informed that there were two primary spectra – an 850 and a 900 megahertz.
Digicel reportedly has half of the 850 and all of the 900.
Browne said the technicians informed the government that Digicel can operate with five frequencies and would not need more than 10.