After seeing a lot of views being shared in the media regarding the issue surrounding the right to provide mobile telephone services to Bemobile instead of Digicel by the Telecommunication Evaluation Committee (TEC), it became obvious that the decision was one that does not go down well with many Solomon Islanders, hence I too would like to share my views on the issue.
If I can recall correctly, the main reasons leading to the demand to open up the telecommunication market was three-fold. Firstly there was this issue of unreliable telecommunication services, especially with mobile telephone services and mainly mobile network congestions and so forth. Secondly there was this issue of cost, where the service provided was so costly and expensive that user talk time in Solomon Islands becomes relatively one of the most expensive in the world. The third issue was regarding the issue of accessibility to mobile telephone services, as the service was centralized only within urban areas, leaving out the rest of population residing in the rural areas. In Solomon Islands most people live in the rural areas and it is at the rural areas that the real economic base of Solomon Islands lies. Hence, there was this realization and recognition that the mobile telephone service must also be extended to the rural areas.
Bemobile, from my knowledge, which is subject for correction, has been based in Papua New Guinea for some time now and when it first came into operation in Papua New Guinea, its products were sold under PNG Telikom. In fact, some facts even show that Bemobile is a remake of B-mobile a defunct division of Telikom PNG. When its shares were sold, Telikom retained 50% while the other shares were divided among NASFUND (5%), Nambawan Super (5%), and the US-based Trilogy International Partners LLC (20%) and GEMS Ltd (20%). When this deal was announced in 2008 the PNG State Minister then described it as a "historic milestone for PNG's telecommunication industry" and indeed it was. But is the decision to have Bemobile instead of Digicel to provide mobile services in Solomon Islands also a milestone in Solomon Islands telecommunication services industry, especially for ordinary mobile service users?
The Prime Minister made a public statement and emphasized that they (TEC and the legal counsel) had made careful assessment of the bids and based on their specified criteria selected Bemobile instead of Digicel. From his statement it was obvious that the decision swayed greatly from the original issues that needs addressing, namely efficiency and reliability, affordability and accessibility. These were the original concerns raised by ordinary Solomon Islanders which resulted in the review of the Telecommunication Act. I am sure you do not have to seek legal counsel from US-based experts to have a complete picture of the situation. These are people from developed countries who do not experience the everyday frustrations of ordinary Solomon Islanders in relation to the high cost of mobile services as well as its inefficiency and unreliability. Moreover, who would guess the independence of the US-based legal counsel when Bemobile is partly owned by two US-based Telecommunication companies?
On the perspective of the TEC, definitely Bemobile will be the best competitor for Our Telekom because it is weak compared to the mighty Digicel. Hence, Our Telekom will be able to stay in the market and may be increase its revenue base which is good for Solomon Islands economy. As we all know SINPF is the biggest shareholder of Our Telekom and SIG owns SINPF. Thus an increase in the earning of Our Telekom will be a direct bonus to SIG. On the other hand PNG Government will also benefit because Telikom PNG, which is partly owned by the PNG Government will also expand its revenue base. This is a very simplistic view of the situation but the list of trickle-down effects of the economic returns of the deal can go on.
The biggest concern however will remain that the ordinary people of Solomon Islands will be the biggest immediate losers of the deal. While Bemobile has made many mouth-watering promises, from the PNG experience I am quite certain that there will still be limited competition and therefore mobile services in Solomon Islands will remain highly ineffective and unreliable, unaffordable and inaccessible. Until another service provider like Digicel enters the market this situation will still remain unchanged.
Above all, while I will refrain from questioning the wisdom of the TEC in reaching their decision, I wish to reiterate that it was a decision made based on reasons that swayed greatly from the original issues that have contributed to the need to open up the telecommunication industry of Solomon Islands. I may be tempted to say that it is a bit selfish of them to sway away from the original cries of ordinary Solomon Islanders, but I am also mindful that the real economic returns of such a deal are yet to be fully realized. However, it is undeniable that the decision will have no positive effect on the mobile telecommunication services in Solomon Islands unless another strong competitor is allowed to enter the market.