Government blames former telecoms official as Digicel and APUA fight over spectrum

Blame is being cast on a former telecommunications officer whose actions the government said have allegedly resulted in the current fight over spectrum between state-owned Antigua Public Utilities Authority (APUA) and Irish-owned Digicel.

Yesterday afternoon, the minister responsible for APUA, Sir Robin Yearwood wrote on his Facebook page, “Over the years APUA an Antiguan Telecoms Company has suffered by the actions of a Telecommunications Officer who was responsible to be fair and neutral in issuing licenses and spectrum.”

He added, “The Telecommunications Officer’s actions have disadvantaged APUA Telecoms. APUA is a wholly State-owned company owned by the Government and people of Antigua and Barbuda. My friends please read the undermentioned letter.”

The letter to which he referred, identified the telecommunications officer by name, Clement Samuel, and revealed that in September 2012, APUA officials expressed concern over the officer’s “arbitrary” distribution of spectrum “without consultation with ALL of the Telecoms Operators” and the then Prime Minister, Baldwin Spencer mandated a solution be found.

 The letter to the telecommunications officer was signed by the Chairman of the Board of APUA, Clarvis Joseph.

The chairman chided Samuel in the document saying, “APUA is a Corporation owned and operated by the Government and People of Antigua. As such, its interests CANNOT and MUST NOT BE subordinated to the interests of ANY foreign-owned Company.”

It also noted that APUA employs over 800 Antiguans and Barbudans and 186 of them work directly in the Telecoms section, and the government must protect the interests of its nationals and national institutions.

According to that letter, Samuel was told that by giving the full spectrum to Digicel, he would make APUA uncompetitive and he was urged against doing so.

The letter’s author continued, “By denying APUA’s participation in Band Class 12, you dare to defy the Prime Minister’s request for a technical solution. In light of this, we are forced to ask the question – WHOSE INTEREST DO YOU SERVE? As you know, there is 18MHz in Band 12. APUA has simply asked for a mere 1/3 of Band 12 … we consider our request reasonable and feasible. Your providing DIGICEL with a monopoly violates all national interests.”

Joseph added that “we shall not be discriminated against in our own country. We have undertaken a process of advising our workers and their Union Representatives of the positions that you have taken regarding the spectrum award. We felt this necessary because, as stakeholders in APUA, they are entitled to be aware of the jeopardy in which you have placed their continued livelihood.”

The exposure of that letter comes about a month after Digicel secured a court order to prevent the government of Antigua and Barbuda from confiscating part of the 850-megahertz spectrum it holds to reassign part of the band APUA.

Samuel, who is now employed by Digicel, declined comment when contacted last evening.

Meanwhile, in recent weeks, Digicel said it has held spectrum in that band for several years. But on May 8 this year, the government ordered the company to return a significant portion of its spectrum by May 31st with the aim of “more equitable distribution” of the band.

Digicel Antigua and Barbuda’s CEO Dwayne Tulloch earlier said the company supports policies that promote competition in the industry such as tower sharing and national roaming but accused the government of going about the process the wrong way.

Recently, Digicel defended its decision to obtain the High Court order preventing the Antigua and Barbuda government from confiscating any of the spectra it has been allocated.

The company said it was necessary to shield its customers from “significant service disruption” and a “negative impact on coverage.”

Digicel charged that the government has been engaging in “anti-competitive and protectionist” behaviour for the sole benefit of APUA.

The foreign company alleged that APUA controls almost double the spectrum used by Digicel and FLOW, another service provider in the market.

In its statement, Digicel accused APUA of “hoarding” the spectrum an acting as “the Regulator” even while it is a player in the market.

Responding to Digicel’s comments, yesterday the Minister responsible for Telecommunications, dismissed as false, the allegation by Digicel that APUA has access or control of more premium spectrum than other telecommunications companies in Antigua and Barbuda.

In a release also posted on his Facebook page, Sir Robin said the state-owned company has very limited access to the spectrum or radio frequencies allotted to the mobile industry and other sectors for communications over airwaves.

The statement indicated that Digicel controls one of the two existing low-frequency bands and Digicel and Flow share the other.

APUA contended that it is those two entities that are hoarding the spectrum, and is limiting APUA and any other entrant to the market operating a 3-G network.

APUA said it does not wish to perpetuate the inequitable hoarding, and that its request is to simply share a portion of this premium spectrum that has remained exclusively in the hands of the international organisations.

The statutory corporation added that the lower and higher bands which it was recently allotted cannot be utilised effectively for and of the company’s voice services.

Another part of Digicel’s statements which APUA rejected, was that it is operating as a regulator of the telecommunications market in Antigua.

It pointed out that APUA, like all other telecommunications companies, operates under the Ministry of Information, Broadcasting, Telecommunications, and Information Technology.