By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Aliv will “revert to Plan A” and execute 100 mobile network site options if it cannot reach agreement with the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) within a reasonable time period.
Damian Blackburn, Aliv’s top executive, told Tribune Business that the new mobile operator and BTC were “very close” to sealing agreements essential for its network roll-out and nationwide service delivery.
Besides agreeing commercial terms for permitting Aliv to ‘roam’ on BTC’s network, the two mobile rivals also have to conclude a deal on ‘co-location’ and facilities sharing.
The latter involves BTC and Aliv sharing the same mobile tower sites and other network facilities, particularly on the Family Islands. And the third, and final, ‘piece of the jigsaw’ from Aliv’s perspective is a transmission agreement that would see BTC’s sub-sea cable network carry its call traffic.
Mr Blackburn, in an interview with Tribune Business, hinted that Aliv’s patience had already been stretched in negotiations with BTC to tie down these agreements, and their commercial terms.
He emphasised, though, that the new mobile operator had back-up plans in place should its incumbent competitor prove intransigent and impact its target of “materially” completing its network build-out in 2017.
“We’re very close to signing an agreement,” Mr Blackburn told Tribune Business of talks between Aliv and BTC. “There’s a little bit of dancing at the edges on both sides.
“Once we sign the agreement, we think that within four to six weeks we can have the roaming working. We’re 98 per cent of the way there on the discussions with BTC, and everything in our own control we are charging forward with.”
The Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority (URCA) last July ruled that Aliv should be allowed to use BTC’s network to deliver its services, especially in the Family Islands, for a period of 24 months until its own infrastructure is built-out.
This will, temporarily at least, allow Aliv to operate via a Mobile Virtual Network (MVN) in several parts of the Bahamas, with its customer call traffic carried on BTC’s network.
Mr Blackburn acknowledged that Aliv’s pricing structure would be “slightly different” for those customers using BTC’s network, given that the latter would impose wholesale fees for using its infrastructure - a normal commercial arrangement in the communications industry.
Such a fee is not in play on the major Bahamian islands, where Aliv has constructed its own network, and Mr Blackburn added: “We’ll probably have slightly different pricing for those customers because of the wholesale agreements with BTC, compared to the pricing for our live network.
“I think it will still be good pricing. We’ll try to keep it as similar as we can, but it will still be slightly different.”
URCA, in its ruling last July, ordered that Aliv’s BTC network ‘roaming’ should start “no later than the date” when the second mobile operator launches its services to the Bahamian public.
That occurred in late November 2016, and the fact that no such ‘roaming’ agreement is yet in place indicates there has been non-compliance with the communications industry regulator’s edict.
It is unclear whether URCA has taken any action over this, but Mr Blackburn continued to highlight just how much the development of mobile competition, and improved consumer choice, pricing and service, depends on BTC’s co-operation.
“We are dependent on co-location,” he explained. “Although we were prepared to build ourselves, and acquired options on 100 sites so that we could, the policy of URCA is that where it is technically feasible to co-locate operations, the preference is co-location.
“While we lost a bit of patience trying to agree co-location between last July and early this year, we went out and acquired sites to build, and filed for permission to build with URCA.
“BTC indicated that we’d co-locate,” Mr Blackburn added. “If we’re slowed down in the process, we will revert to Plan A, which is to build. URCA has been giving us approvals where there is no co-location opportunity.”
He added that co-location was “a complex engineering process”, where both Aliv and BTC’s personnel needed to work closely together to ensure their electronic radio equipment did not interfere with the other’s network.
“We would expect that within a few months of signing a co-location agreement, provided BTC co-operates, that we will have a network operating on sites that are co-located,” Mr Blackburn said.
“In the meantime, we are getting on with construction on sites where URCA has given us permission to build. We want to wrap up the Family Islands build-out in 2017 as much as we possibly can. Some 10-20 per cent of sites may be left, but materially it will be completed.”
Mr Blackburn added that, in return, Aliv and its 48.25 per cent owner, Cable Bahamas, are prepared to allow BTC to co-locate at their sites on the same terms the latter is offering to its new rival.
“Co-location is a normal feature in a lot of markets. It’s not an unusual situation,” he emphasised. “If we’re co-locating on BTC’s sites, they’re going to earn revenues from us.”
Mr Blackburn said the third and final piece of co-operation required from BTC is a transmission agreement, which would enable Aliv’s communications traffic from the remoter Family Islands to be carried - for a fee - on the latter’s sub-sea cable network.
“We need a transmission deal from BTC on the BSDN,” he confirmed in reference to BTC’s network. “There will be ramped up discussions with them once the co-location and build-out is nailed down. We’ll expect BTC to give replies to our previous proposals.
“We’re going to get there. I’m confident. It’s just going to come down to the terms of agreeing the transmission.”