Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Caricel dilemma - Government reportedly trying to broker sale of telecoms firm as international partners hint at punitive actions against Jamaica

Published:Sunday | March 5, 2017 | 3:00 AMErica Virtue and Ryon Jones
Prime Minister Andrew Holness
Caricel office on Lindsay Crescent.
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The Government's headache over the telecommunications firm Symbiote Investments Limited could disappear if the principals accept an offer from interested buyers who are reportedly looking to take it over.

But the company has said for any offer to be considered, it would have to be very attractive.

Sunday Gleaner sources say the owners of Symbiote, which trades as Caricel, have put a US$50-million price tag on the business; however, attorney-at-law Minette Lawrence said reports that the company was being put up for sale were news to her.

"Speaking as the secretary of the company, Caricel is not up for sale. The company is not for sale," said Lawrence, even as she admitted that potential buyers had been sniffing around.

"There is no 'for sale' sign here. Despite the issues which have arisen we do receive offers from time to time. Up to yesterday (last Wednesday) we were contacted, but those are expressions of interest, those were not offers," emphasised Lawrence.

She said Caricel is an attractive investment as everyone had seen the extent to which Digicel grew since it was established here, and the potential of the business was understood. "Some people may feel that because of the issues which arose in the media they will get it cheaply. That would be a mistaken view. From what you are hearing, you see that persons are interested, and naturally, we are business people and if there is something worth pursuing we would. But not to the detriment of the value that we have created," declared Lawrence.

A change in the ownership of Symbiote would be welcome news for Prime Minister Andrew Holness and his team, who got swept into a nightmare after a spectrum licence was granted to the company.

Some of Jamaica's international partners, believed to be the United States, Canada and Britain, are seemingly adamant that with its present ownership, the company is not fit and proper to operate in the telecommunications sector, and the Holness administration is struggling to meet their demand for immediate action.

 

No other option

 

Recently, Holness told The Sunday Gleaner that the People's National Party administration had left his Government with no option but to grant the licence to Symbiote. The contractor general recommended against the granting of the licence but Holness argued that, "By any standard of judgement, the decision to grant the licence was already made by the previous Cabinet."

According to Holness, his administration was basically left to determine the form of the licence when it took office a year ago.

"We took the contractor general's recommendation very seriously and we reviewed what he said, but then we had to balance against what would be our legal exposure having all of what was done by the previous government," explained the prime minister.

While not saying what would be his administration's next step, at a time when the international partners are reportedly citing national security concerns as the reason for their opposition to Symbiote, Holness declared that everything will be done "by the letter of the law".

But the Government could face a multibillion-dollar lawsuit if it revokes the licence granted to the company, even as sources say the international partners remain adamant that the present owners cannot be allowed to operate the business and it must be sold or shut down.

 

Not the right group

 

"Holness has been told that while the international partners will support a home-grown telecoms company, they just don't think that this group is the right group to be doing so. It needs to be either people who are fit and proper or it needs to be shut down," a source close to the administration told our news team.

"The question of fit and proper and where did the actual capital come from for this enterprise, the international partners claim there are pretty significant issues around that," added the source.

According to the source, with the Americans already revoking the visas of persons connected to Symbiote, there are fears in the Government that stronger action will follow, and a senior member of the administration was given the task to beg that time be allowed for a buyer to be found.

"The response was troubling as the message sent back to Holness was that it is in Jamaica's national security interest to ensure that the people who are running telecoms companies are fit and proper, and it is in the US national interest that this particular group of people do not run the telecoms company," added the source.

Holness was also reportedly told that the Americans were not setting ultimatums or timelines but they are demanding action and pushing that the company be sold.

erica.virtue@gleanerjm.com