PM Browne renews attack on Digicel as spectrum row rumbles on

23 Jul 2019

The Daily Observer reports that the Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, has renewed his attack on Irish-owned Digicel Group over an ongoing spat over the allocation of 850MHz mobile spectrum in the country. With Browne adamant that he will protect the interests of state-owned Antigua Public Utilities Authority (APUA), the PM outlined the government’s ‘two-pronged approach’ to resolve the issue: fighting them ‘politically’ and counter-suing Digicel, which has secured a High Court order preventing the government from seizing any of its 850MHz spectrum to reallocate to APUA. Further he warned: ‘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.’

As previously reported by CommsUpdate, in June Digicel (Antigua and Barbuda) applied for – and won – a court order to prevent the government from seizing or confiscating any of its 850MHz spectrum allocation for reassignment to fixed and mobile operator APUA. The cellco, owned by Denis O’Brien’s Caribbean mobile operator Digicel Group, won the first round of a legal battle to stop the government confiscating spectrum for reallocation to the state-owned rival, noting that if it fails in its challenge it would be forced to spend USD25 million on rebuilding its network. Accusing the government of allowing anti-competitive practices to ‘run amok’ in favouring its own company, Digicel said: ‘In any other market this would be a cause for concern for the regulator. But uniquely in Antigua and Barbuda, APUA is also the regulator, and hence holds the roles of both referee and player, allowing for protectionist and anti-competitive behaviour’.

Browne upped the ante in mid-June, threatening that his government would not hesitate to buy out competitors to ensure that APUA is not left behind in the local market, before the PM switched tack, proposing changes to the Telecommunications Bill to benefit the state-owned PTO.