Prime Minister ups ante with threat to buy out Digicel (Antigua and Barbuda)

19 Jun 2019

The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, has turned up the heat in the government’s ongoing spat with foreign-owned mobile operators over the administration’s plan to reallocate spectrum to state-owned Antigua Public Utilities Authority (APUA). Speaking on a radio programme at the weekend, Browne put the Digicel Group company on alert by suggesting that his government would not hesitate to buy out competitors to ensure that APUA is not left behind in the local 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 reportedly said, adding: ‘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.’ Browne added his administration has hired in independent telecommunications analysts to advise it on the situation.

The dispute relates to the allocation of 850MHz spectrum which Digicel and Flow each hold longstanding licences to use. Last month, the PM wrote to them to order them to comply with an edict to share space in the lower frequency band with APUA, which he claims has been placed at a disadvantage in terms of its spectrum holdings. With neither firm yielding, Brown said bullishly: ‘No court can tell us to whom we can license our spectrum, our national asset, so we are allowing for due process, we are allowing for a period of negotiation.’ However, Digicel and Flow filed litigation against the government and Digicel recently secured a court order to prevent the government from seizing or confiscating any of its 850MHz spectrum.

With tension mounting, Browne argues that APUA does not benefit from the revenue collected from roaming charges because it ‘does not have that type of low-frequency spectrum’ and that the existing playing field is not equal. ‘You are telling me what we must sit down and allow that inequity to continue. So, we say to them you have 21 gigabytes of space let’s share it 7-7-7 and that is what they are resisting,’ he said, insisting that all three telcos can survive under that arrangement.