By Yves Ephraim
As I listen to the mud-slinging going on in the public media, I refuse to reduce my thinking to that level.
I am really only interested in understanding what are the underlying big-picture facts, and having determined what those are, then I seek to suggest a principled approach on how we might achieve a fix to the situation in which we find ourselves.
As the debate rages on about what is considered the “fair” allocation of radio spectrum, the first question you must ask yourself is: who has the power to allocate radio frequency? The second is: can APUA, C&W or Digicel allocate frequency to themselves?
I daresay that only the government of Antigua and Barbuda has the authority to allocate radio frequencies. So what can we conclude from this?
The logical conclusion that can be inferred from all of this, is if we now find ourselves in a situation where spectrum has been unfairly allocated, then the only one culpable for this state of affairs, is the government of Antigua and Barbuda, regardless of political administration.
It is therefore fair to say that had the government being operating in a “fair” and neutral way from the beginning we would not have found ourselves in this quagmire.
I believe that understanding who is responsible for this confusion sets the context for how we might fix the problem.
If we start from the premise that government is responsible for this crisis, then it means that it cannot rightfully pass the blame onto anyone else. It also means that the government cannot rightfully take the moral high ground on this issue.
The government must adopt a stance that it, and no one else, is to blame. It therefore, cannot blame the players in the telecom industry for rightfully looking after their self-interests. It is for this reason that the government regulates this industry in the first place. It is well understood that if the independent players were left to themselves to decide how frequency spectrum were divvied up, there would be vastly unfair allocations and far more fights like this.
So how did we get here despite the government’s authority to regulate fairly? This answer is left open to wide speculation.
So how do we go about remedying this issue?
For me the only acceptable approach it to bring all parities behind closed doors and have a reasonable discussion on the matter. This matter, in my humble opinion, should have never been brought into the public domain.
It is clear to me that there is an underlying breakdown of trust between the government and those that it regulates. Consequently, we now see this matter brought before for the legal courts and the court of public opinion for resolution.
None of those two courts may necessarily produce an optimal solution that is in the best interest of all stakeholders including the taxpayers of this country.
I do not agree that the solution should be a unilateral decree of the government to compulsorily revoke leased property when there is no evidence that the players broke the law in having more of what is considered their fair share.
Now that this matter has reached this far, we see that we are on the cusp of violating principles that we claim we espouse as a nation. What I am witnessing is that the government is now set to violate the principles of “property rights” for the sake of expediency. This is a big thing for me because it transcends this current issue.
To bring this issue into focus more clearly, let me draw a corollary to the current situation by way of example.
Let us suppose that you went to the government of the day and after completing all of the legal requirements of your application, you were successful in gaining a 20-year lease to one acre of land for your farming project.
With your 20-year lease in hand, you go about buying your tools, machinery and equipment; you buy your seeds; you hire your workers; you get a loan; and you plow the plot. From your business plan you determine that you would break even by year ten. How would you feel if in year eight of operating your farm, you get a notice from government telling you that in the interest of ‘fair’ allocation of farm lands, you are now forced to give up 50% of the land immediately? How fair is that? You followed the rules, you did nothing to break the law but yet, you are now asked to suffer loss by no fault of your own!
That act of government, in my opinion, is a violation of that person’s property rights. The concept of property rights is the foundation of any free market economy. This is one of the concepts behind the “Ease of Doing Business” surveys.
Is Antigua and Barbuda a totalitarian state?
What message is the government sending to the business community? Is it saying that on a whim it can randomly take away the rights of legitimate individuals or companies to enjoy the benefits of the property they own or lease?
To me, this is an omen. Today, the telecom industry is pillaged and nationalized, tomorrow it may be the hotel industry and thereafter, it may be my private home. Where will this end?
My conclusion to all of this is that this problem was created by government and therefore government should not simply violate the “property rights” of the players in the industry as an ostensibly means to fix the mess it created. This creates a double whammy for the industry.
This matter needs to go back to the negotiating table behind closed doors and with a spirit that the property rights of each player will be respected. If the government wants something that someone rightfully holds, the only way it can have it is: a) by the involved party willingly giving it up or; b) by taking it by force, and it such case, the dispossessed party is entitled to a fair market price for his property, as the laws of compulsory acquisition already dictate.
Personally, I am never in favor of forcibly taking away someone’s legitimate property. This is normally call theft, whether done by an individual, a group of individuals or the government.
Let’s get back to the negotiating table.