Antigua ‘offers buyout’ of Digicel unit as spectrum row intensifies

Prime minister says he offered Denis O’Brien a state buyout to settle legal row

Digicel made no comment on Antiguan prime minister Gaston Browne’s apparent offer for talks to buy out the group’s island operation. Photograph: Ken Cedeno/Digital/Corbis via Getty Images

Digicel made no comment on Antiguan prime minister Gaston Browne’s apparent offer for talks to buy out the group’s island operation. Photograph: Ken Cedeno/Digital/Corbis via Getty Images

 

The prime minister of the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda says he has contacted Denis O’Brien, the owner of the telecoms group Digicel, to offer a state buyout of the company’s operation on the island, to settle a legal row.

Gaston Browne, who is also the minister for finance, says he made the offer to Mr O’Brien on behalf of Apua, a state-owned rival of Digicel’s that doubles as Antigua’a regulator.

Digicel last month obtained a court order to prevent the government there from confiscating spectrum from it to give to Apua.

The row blew up again over the weekend after barbed comments by government ministers aimed at Digicel . The company has accused the island’s government of making “grossly distorted assertions”.

In remarks made on his own private radio station, Mr Browne reportedly suggested the market is not big enough for Digicel, Apua and Flow, another commercial mobile operator ultimately backed by US cable tycoon John Malone.

Spectrum

“Digicel and Flow can jump high, they can jump low, but they have to share [the spectrum],” Mr Browne said.

“It is either share or leave and we make no apologies about it [because the spectrum] is our asset. It does not belong to any court either.”

Mr Browne said he had “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 continued: “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 or, at best, two players. If one has to leave, it won’t be Apua. So between Digicel and Flow, they need to make up their minds.”

Digicel made no comment last night on Mr Browne’s apparent offer for talks to buy out the group’s island operation. But it referred to comments made last Friday by another minister, Robin Yearwood, the minister for public utilities.

He had suggested Digicel’s mobile licence was issued by a former state official whom he says now works for Digicel. The company insisted its licence was actually signed by Mr Yearwood.

“In disseminating false facts and attacking the good character of a Digicel executive formerly employed by the government, the minister is deliberately muddying the waters to draw attention away from the very unfair, anti-competitive . . . actions of the government in seeking to confiscate a portion of our spectrum,” the company said.

The prime minister’s office had not responded to a request for comment prior to publication.

The ongoing row is over a government order to Flow and Digicel to hand over some of their allocated spectrum for use by Apua. Digicel alleges the move is “protectionist”.