Ownership, rollout plans criticised; govt intends to delay third licence until 2018

16 Feb 2015

Pan-Caribbean operator Digicel has questioned the Bahamian government’s policies regarding the liberalisation of the cellular market, the Nassau Guardian writes. The group’s head of business development, Frank O’Carroll said that the six-month deadline to roll out a network and launch services was ‘hugely challenging’, adding that the government’s policy for ‘wide ownership’, which requires that the new operator is majority Bahamian-owned, is risky and ‘not for the faint-hearted.’ O’Carroll went on to clarify, though, that his company understands the government’s requirements and is prepared to work within those parameters. According to the official, the installation of a new network would cost between USD200 million and USD250 million, including the construction of 200-300 new towers. Regarding the strict time frame for launch, O’Carroll said that the deadline was ‘hugely challenging’ but Digicel has worked to tighter timelines before. To overcome the time constraints of the rollout, he went on, Digicel will ‘just throw a massive amount of people at it.’

Meanwhile, opposition party the Free National Movement (FNM) has also criticised the government’s plan to control a majority stake in the country’s second mobile operator, suggesting the policy could have a negative impact on consumers. The Bahamas’ licensing process will see the state hold a 51% stake in the new licensee (dubbed ‘NewCo’) through a holding company (‘HoldingCo’), although these shares are only to be held by the state until it can arrange for their sale to private Bahamian investors. FNM Chairman Michael Pintard cast doubt on the plans saying: ‘It is conceivable that the government, [which] has a huge stake in the present telecommunications company and…will be the majority shareholder in the new company, can fix prices and disadvantage the consumer…It opens the doors for any number of backdoor deals and the government ought to ensure there is transparency in this entire process.’

In a related development, the Bahamian government intends to delay the licensing of a third mobile operator until 2018 at the earliest. Under the current Electronic Communication Sector (ECS) Policy, the government is barred from offering a third wireless concession until 5 April 2016 – two years after the expiry of Bahamas Telecommunications Company’s (BTC’s) monopoly on the sector – however, the government plans to amend the policy to postpone the entry of a third player for at least three years from the commercial launch of the second operator.

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