Government of Antigua threatens Digicel over mobile spectrum

20 June 2019 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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The Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda is threatening to withdraw Digicel’s mobile licence in the latest twist in a dispute over spectrum.

The government of Antigua and Barbuda – with a population of just over 100,000 – wants to reallocate spectrum in the 850MHz band to the state-owned Antigua Public Utilities Authority (APUA).

Prime minister Gaston Browne said in an interview: “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 portrayed the battle as between the state company and either Digicel, owned by Irish entrepreneur Denis O’Brien, or Flow, owned by Liberty Latin America through Cable & Wireless.

“If one has to go, it will not be APUA so they better understand that,” said Browne. “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 state of Antigua and Barbuda, east of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, is a monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state – as she is of Australia, Canada and New Zealand as well as of the UK. The UK government has no responsibility for the independent state.

Asked for a comment by Capacity, Digicel’s head office in Jamaica offered a statement issued almost a week ago, but would not comment further.

In the statement, Digicel pointed out that the spectrum it held was originally allocated by Robin Yearwood, the minister responsible for telecoms. He is also responsible for APUA, the fixed-line monopoly, noted Digicel.

The company queried why APUA wasn’t using its spectrum in the 700MHz band, specifically allocated for LTE. “APUA has never explained why it does not use this valuable spectrum,” said Digicel.

Browne’s main complaint, according to the Antigua Observer, is that phones of visitors to the country roam to Digicel or Flow’s signal, and not to APUA’s service – thereby meaning it does not earn roaming revenues.

“APUA gets none because they don’t have that type of low frequency spectrum,” the paper quotes the prime minister as saying.

Digicel has secured a court order to prevent the government from seizing or confiscating any of its 850MHz spectrum.