Digicel settles dispute with ‘hostile’ Antiguan prime minister

Denis O’Brien-owned company agrees to yield a portion of its spectrum to state-owned rival

Authorities  on the island nation of Antigua & Barbuda have agreed to extend Digicel’s licences. Photograph: Ken Cedeno/Digital/Corbis via Getty Images

Authorities on the island nation of Antigua & Barbuda have agreed to extend Digicel’s licences. Photograph: Ken Cedeno/Digital/Corbis via Getty Images

 

Denis O’Brien’s Caribbean telecoms company Digicel has settled a bitter dispute with the government of the island nation of Antigua & Barbuda.

The company has bowed to a government demand to relinquish some of its spectrum to a state-owned rival, while authorities have agreed to extend Digicel’s licences. Digicel had enraged the island’s prime minister, Gaston Browne, during the summer when it obtained an interim court injunction preventing the government from confiscating any of its spectrum in Antigua.

The authorities there want to strip Digicel and its rival commercial operator, Flow, of spectrum used for so-called “4G lite” mobile services. The spectrum would hand it over to state-owned operator Antigua Public Utilities Authority (APUA), which doubles as the island’s telecom regulator.

Digicel had accused the authorities of engaging in “protectionist and anti-competitive behaviour” and a “unilateral breach of good faith”.

The Antigua government had warned that “no court can tell us to whom we can license our spectrum”. Subsequently, Mr Browne, who is also minister for finance, made repeated criticisms of Digicel during his talk show on his private radio station.

‘Share or leave’

At one stage, Mr Browne claimed to his radio listeners that he had “sent a message” to Mr O’Brien that the state wanted to buy Digicel if would not share its spectrum with APUA: “It is either share or leave.”

Mr Browne also suggested to his radio listeners that he was “hostile” to Mr O’Brien and said he had given Digicel’s local manager “a few choice words to give his principal back in Ireland”.

The Antigua government has announced in recent days that Digicel has agreed to drop its court action and has also agreed to hand over some of its spectrum to APUA, a stark change in Digicel’s position.

The government claims Digicel will hand over two megahertz of the 850 band of valuable spectrum and nine megahertz of 900 band spectrum. It is believed that Digicel is satisfied with this, as it is much less than was originally sought.

“Digicel is pleased to announce that it has reached an amicable agreement with the government of Antigua & Barbuda in regard to the provision of future spectrum arrangements,” said Digicel, confirming the compromise deal.

“We welcome particularly the automatic continuity of our licences beyond 2021. This will allow us to invest further,” it said.

Despite the bitter war of words that erupted between both sides at the height of the row, Digicel said it “appreciates” the role played by Mr Browne in reaching a deal.

“It has always been Digicel’s policy that relationships are built on mutual confidence, trust and on consultation. When we see problems, our business ethic is to find constructive and imaginative solutions,” it said.