– Unauthorised Spectrum Usage discovered by Telecoms Agency U-Mobile Inc. which trades as Digicel, has recently come under scrutiny with the Government as rapid moves are apace to maximize the benefits of a liberalised telecommunications sector. Documents seen by this publication confirmed that, within weeks of liberalisation, the Irish company headed by Dennis O’brien occupied spectrum without being issued with the requisite frequency authorization. Such use of spectrum would hinder and restrain the ability of other licenced entrants to utilize their duly authorized spectrum fully.
The issue has since escalated with the recent discovery that the company has again started to occupy additional spectrum without the requisite authorizations, even before the Government could review the new frequency band.
Digicel has also approached the courts seeking to halt the Government’s spectrum issue and if successful, could delay the deployment of services by competing carriers, which would consequently impact the access of the public to these services. In its suit, Digicel claims to have a legitimate expectation to the unauthorized use of spectrum.
But this approach appears to be thwarting the process and the benefits of liberalisation to consumers.
GTT has indicated that it will be deploying a 4.5 G Network and has already been legally granted spectrum to begin this process. However, GTT has already written to the Telecommunications Agency, stating that it will expeditiously transition to the assigned spectrum, but may be prevented from doing so because of unauthorized use in one of its spectrum bands. It therefore asked the Telecommunications Agency and the Ministry, to take the necessary steps at enforcing the law to prevent any such unlawful use. E-Networks have also written to the agency about interference in its licenced band, which is causing delays in its countrywide expansion.
This unauthorised use of spectrum is not the first time Digicel has been accused of bypassing the legal process. In March 2017, GTT alleged that Digicel was facilitating an “illegal, unlicenced trans-border link between Guyana and Suriname,” an operation which Digicel has acknowledged on several occasions, and which amounted to “remarkable arrogance and disregard for rule of law in Guyana” according to GTT.
In 2017, GTT claimed that Digicel has never provided any specific information in relation to this illegal bypass activity, which it believed deprived the national coffers of billions of dollars in tax payments. To date, Digicel has not made public whether it made any payment of the tax assessments alleged by GTT.
Similar to the present case, GTT expressed its frustration that Digicel avoided any responsibility for its illegal activities but instead, “[made] excuses or [launched] new and unfounded claims that are meant to distract the public and the media.”
Moreover, the operation of the bypass also entailed the use of valuable spectrum by Digicel, which GTT had claimed was “simply taken as its own, without payment.” The company believed that Guyanese had “a right to know whether this spectrum has, in fact, been stolen by Digicel.”
Further revelations have also indicated that Digicel has not paid its licence fees for at least five years, an amount estimated to surpass $1 billion dollars. The Telecommunications Agency has recently billed Digicel for these outstanding fees, requesting that they be paid within thirty (30) days.
Notably, companies related to Digicel have disclosed financial constraints in the past with Digicel Group, the parent company of Digicel, filing for bankruptcy in 2020.
On the 5th of October 2020, the telecommunication sector in Guyana was liberalised when the Telecommunications Act No. 18 of 2016, and the Public Utilities Commission Act No. 19 of 2016, were made effective.
The orders, which occurred within two months of the Government assuming office, ended a 30-year anti-competitive telecommunications monopoly that had left the local sector underdeveloped compared to the rest of the region.
Earlier this year, the Telecommunications Agency confirmed plans to issue additional spectrum licenses, which would start the process to enable providers to offer expanded and upgraded telecommunications services.