Bemobile and Solomon Telekom are locked in a dispute with the Solomon Islands Telecommunications Commission over the issuing of a third mobile phone licence and their court action is due for another appearance before the courts on Friday.
Under court orders the Telecommunications Commission has put its tender for the third licence on hold until it has consulted the 2 other operators.
Presenter: Jemima Garrett
Speaker: Michael Ah Koy, Bemobile CEO; Nic Williams, Solomon Islands Telecommunications Commissioner
GARRETT: Across the Pacific new mobile phone services have revolutionised people's lives - improving health care, keeping friends and family in touch and giving businesses access to their customers.
The Telecommunications Commission was set up in Solomon Islands early last year to introduce the competitors to make that happen.
PNG Telikom's Bemobile won the right to set up a second mobile phone service but it has had problems meeting tough coverage commitments.
According to the Telecommunications Commission Bemobile has failed to meet any of these on time. In the latest case, the company received a 1 million US dollar penalty for failing to offer phone services to 75% of the population by February 1st.
Bemobile says it has met the coverage requirement.
On the touchy issue of the third mobile phone licence the Telecommunications Commission says its aim is to lift competition - and so improve the quality and geographic spread of phone services and the responsiveness of phone companies.
Bemobile CEO Michael Ah Koy says that is not the issue it has with the way the third licence tender has been handled.
AH KOY: We don't have an issue at all with competition. We received our licence on the basis of the Telecommunications Commission and the Solomon Islands government opening up the market so we are all about competition. I guess our issue is that we would like to see competition on a level playing field, and the same burden of responsibility in terms of reaching the population targets that were applied to us, are applied to any potential entrant.
GARRETT: No other pacific Island country has a third mobile phone operator.
Telecommunications Commissioner Nic Williams says that is why now is the time to introduce a third operator into Solomon Islands.
WILLIAMS: The reason why other countries haven't had 3 player markets is partly one of timing. We are at a stage where we still have very low market penetration - its only just now getting to 25%. There is an opportunity for a third player to come in and almost address the entire market still. I am not sure that any customers are particularly tied to any one service provider in the market at the moment. If you start to licence later on when penetration is up to the 50% mark say - so 50% of the population already has a mobile phone - it becomes much, much more difficult to make a business case for a third player.
GARRETT: Nic Williams is keen push ahead and restart the tender process.
He has set the 30th of March as the deadline for submissions on the third licence and he is still to be convinced by the arguments of Solomons Telekom and Bemobile.
Bemobile CEO, Michael Ah Koy, is not giving too much away before court action is complete but he insists if a third licence is to be offered it must include strict coverage requirements.
AH KOY: I think any new entrant should have similar hurdles to get over in order to have a licence.
GARRETT: Would a third mobile phone licence without a coverage requirements jeopardise the viability of the existing two operators ?
AH KOY: That information is going to be made public in our submission to the commissioner.
GARRETT: Bemobile has been late in meeting its coverage requirements and you have built no new base stations, according to the Telecommunications Commission, since 1st December last year. What has the problem been?
AH KOY: Firstly we dispute that - and, as I said, that is a matter that is before the courts.
GARRETT: You have you built any mobile phone base stations since December last year?
AH KOY: Yes we have.
GARRETT: How many and where are they?
AH KOY: Jemima, that is something that is going to be before the court.
GARRETT: You have been taking a lot of court action against the Telecommunications Commission. Is this an element of this action an effort to get some of these decision delayed until the very active Telecommunications Commissioner finishes his term in office?
AH KOY: No, that is not the case at all. I mean, I think the act is there and we are basically, like I said in my earlier statement, we welcome the competition. We just want to make sure we have a level playing field where we compete.