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Digicel’s overdue tower debts impoverish & anger landowners

Digicel tower  Barikas  Madang Province (Amanda Watson)
Digicel tower at Barikas,  Madang Province (Amanda Watson)


PORT MORESBY – This is my seventh month of complaining about the failure of the Digicel PNG Ltd telecommunications company to pay the rent money it owes to the landowners of its digital tower locations.

Some Digicel employees feel sorry for us and have said the people in charge of payments will ignore us and never try to help.

The clauses of the agreement we made with Digicel are clear. No such thing should happen to any of us landowners. But because landowners are simple people and can easily be tricked, they continue to ignore us and cheat us.

Only a few landowners who have help from their families and clansmen are now seeking legal advice while the one hope of the rest of us is to continue to complain at the Digicel office. But we cannot break through by complaining and therefore are losing hope.

So what we think best is to use the media to expose what is going on. Not all the people in the Digicel office are bad. Perhaps some good people there will see this and try to find out what is going on.

When everyone in Digicel knows about the problems we face, perhaps they can talk for us. When that happens, we feel our problem can be solved and the corruption and cheating will be stopped.

Many illiterate Papua New Guineans have cried for many years over their land where the Digicel towers stand and they have not collected rental payments. Their tears are still running today.

The problem began when Digicel and its officers did not devise a proper plan for illiterate landowners to collect the rental payments. At first, Digicel should have found out who they were the legitimate owners of the land where the Digicel tower would stand.

This was not done. Digicel and its officers never put their feet on the ground to locate the boundaries and never even asked the people to confirm who the legitimate landowners were.

Some landowners are paid through their bank accounts but not in full. It is clearly indicated in the agreement signed with landowners that payments will be made every six months. Digicel and its officer should know what the outstanding funds are and when they must be paid.

To get their unpaid rental payment, landowners use their own funds to come to Port Moresby or, if they live in remote places, travel miles and days to reach their Digicel branch. This is despite the agreement with Digicel clearly indicating that the lessor will not need to spend funds due to the existence of the tower on their land.

During the awareness period before towers were erected, Digicel should have known the level of knowledge of landowners. But Digicel hid from landowners and never negotiated was how they would receive their rental payments.

For those who do not have any bank account, what does Digicel do? Do their officers take the money and later erase all trace? Is there any concern at the top of Digicel that payments have been made to rightful landowners?

The mobile tower operations manager is supposed to know who is being paid and who is not. But when landowners ask to receive outstanding payment, there is pretence that nothing is known about unpaid rentals.

When landowners find that the outstanding payment has not gone into their bank account, they return to the Digicel office again to complain. This process repeats over and over until the landowners give up.

So complaints are disposed of using delaying techniques at the ground level and never reach the officers who can reasonably make sense of the matter at the Digicel top level. How can these complaints reach the top if the people lower down are the barrier?

This protocol of delaying techniques has been going on too long. Almost all the landowners in PNG, especially those in rural areas and who are illiterate, face these problems and suffer most. The things Digicel keeps them secret from them are:

  1. Digicel never assisted landowners regarding how they will be paid.
  2. Digicel never found out how the landowners will get their payments if they do not have a bank account.
  3. Digicel never assisted landowners to open bank accounts when they saw that landowners did not have one.
  4. Digicel never told people about how the CPI would be increased.
  5. Digicel never kept good records of rental payments being made.
  6. Digicel delays payments until landowners get frustrated and quit complaining.

Another problem is that Digicel is supposed to employ four security guards for the towers and to pay them every fortnight - two security guards should protect the towers for the night shift and two for the day shift.

But many of the guards are ghosts who are never seen, security is left to the landowners who live near the towers.

So what happens to this money that would be paid in wages to protect more than 1,000 towers across Papua New Guinea?


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