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Towards Regulating Mobile Telephony

By Tanu Jalloh

No doubt post-war Sierra Leone is experiencing the full potential of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in what I have come to call a mobile phone revolution. But what has regulation or competition played to engender quality service delivery? Let’s read what some experts felt some three years ago.

When I first wrote about its impacts on a fledgling economy in January 2009, I sampled expert views. Most of them believed that the advent of mobile telephony was yet to raise its ugly head. Those views still hold even today. I mean three years later the situation has only slightly changed for the better.

In Sierra Leone the advent of mobile telephony dawned on us unnoticed and at the time – in September 2000 – only a few privileged people had access to the Internet. The majority of Sierra Leoneans barely had a clue about the global information and communication technologies age fast sweeping across Africa.

Before this period, it was only the government-owned telecom operator, Sierratel that operated fixed line telephones. They are almost out of use today. It was about the first to also provide Internet services but the traffic was as incredibly slow as it was expensive. Thus, Sierratel monopolised the telecommunications industry until in early 2000s when mobile phone operators like Celtel (later Zain and now Airtel) and later Millicom which became tiGo before it was sold off to Africel, entered the country's small market economy. However, that was not because government regulations governing the industry favoured Sierratel's monopoly, but it was then virtually the only telecom operator in the country.

Today, we are far away from limiting telecom to or associating it with Sierratel. The presence of liberalisation, interconnection and collocation, which points to a significant direction of regulated competition, has replaced that perception. Soon we saw a steady increase and growing presence of additional providers of mobile telephony (GSM, CDMA, VoIP, Fixed Wireless and Mainlines) like Comium, Africel and Datatel which died shortly after it was established in 2001.

Internet services provided in the Sierratel days met serious problems. They therefore could not influence the perceptions of people who apparently would wish to benefit from ICTs. Much as Web hosting in most parts of Africa is still very expensive, partly because of the different constraints that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) face - fewer customers, costs of the bandwidth, local infrastructure virtually never existed. In contemporary Sierra Leone market economy, ISPs like Fidelity Global Companies, Afrinet, IPTEL, and Limeline are yet to effectively extend Internet communications throughout the country. This was going to be made worse simply because services provided by ISPs were just limited.

Fixed lines still concentrate in Freetown, the capital city, leaving the vast majority in the provincial towns and villages not even connected to landline telephone system let alone have Internet access. Such growth is also constrained by the extent of electricity grid, the unavailability of computer equipment and low level of literacy.

Against such background, it became a surety that factors mentioned above would no doubt favour the advent of GSM. Today, Airtel, which stands as the pioneering mobile operator, claims to operate in almost all the major towns and surrounding villages. Like Airtel, Comium has also claims that it now provides services to about 80 per cent of the country’s population, while Africel caters for a good number of clientele as well and, of course, also claims to be Number One in the country.

Consequently, mobile subscribers have surpassed fixed line users and mobile coverage generally spreads beyond the reach of fixed lines. The small wireless handsets can now be found in some of the remotest villages. Although information technology development is still largely a matter of private sector investment and would not imply a public sector resource drain, it is increasingly central to economic growth, which is a prerequisite to addressing the health, environment, government and a myriad other national challenges.

That notwithstanding, the Group Chief Executive Officer of leading global ICT leaders’ forum, AITEC, Dr. Anil Sahai once observed that resources, knowledge, technology, market and economy were the internal ingredients of the IT induced economies, with innovation playing the key role for new product development. He added: “Competition plays an important role in enhancing the quality of products and services as well as pushing for innovation. This competition can be from internal players or the external (international) players. However, the empowerment can make or break the whole system.”

But regulation-wise some IT communications experts in Sierra Leone, among them, Maxwell Massaqoui – an expert in the areas of telecom regulation and telecom Business Support System/Operation Support System (BSS/OSS) – had suggested ways through which that break could be forestalled in the country. His arguments were premised on the fact that the country was grappling with the ignominy of a fledgling economy; therefore competition should not consume regulation.

His views, to a greater extent, matched a June 2002 ICT Development and Initiative Dossier, which looked at ICT in the African Caribbean and Pacific regions. It says: “Since the beginning of the 1980s almost all national telecom and information technology markets worldwide have been transformed by technological innovation, product diversification (especially the introduction of mobile/cellular telephony and internet) and market restructuring (particularly privatisation, liberalisation and the introduction of independent regulator.”

But the situation is different in Sierra Leone where the issue of an independent regulator was a major concern. By default, and before the advent of the National Telecommunication Commission (NATCOM), the business of competition management and regulation was left with the then Ministry of Transport and Communications. Prior to it being disengaged from its line ministry as part of the former government's privatisation programme, Sierratel under the ministry had also served as the "master regulator" for the industry. But then again Maxwell was not comfortable with the then government's regulation of the telecom industry.

“In the absence of an independent regulator and with the Public Telecom Operator (PTO) lined with the National Commission for Privatisation (NCP), the Ministry was tasked with wide ranging issues relating to the management of sector competition and regulation,” Maxwell explained.

Now, NATCOM, which was established by the 2004 Telecom Act, has the statutory duty to issue operator licenses, allocate spectrums or other scarce resources, arbitrate disputes, formulate sector policy, and administer fines and industry standardisation and consumer protection measures.

According to Maxwell, “the ministry, before NATCOM, failed to present a meaningful platform to articulate the national government's position and policy on telecommunications.”
Like other experts, Maxwell could not dispute the fact that post-conflict Sierra Leone had seen and was fully realising the full benefits of competition especially in the telecom industry. However, he was concerned that the country must go beyond the perceived approach of “liberalization without regulation” or “liberalization with phased in regulation,” especially when the need for well guided policy and regulatory framework was more acute.

He suggested that in order to comprehensively benefit from the government's liberalisation policy and sector reforms, NATCOM should take some urgent measures in managing the regulatory affairs of the sector, lest the current state of the telecom sector would put the consumer at the disposal of the service provider. His views speak to the general poor state of affairs in the mobile phone service delivery.

On January 17, 2006, all mobile phone operators put out a joint public notice announcing a 10% Sales Tax on all local tariffs. In the aftermath, subscribers booed at the decision and attributed such extemporary imposition of 10% tax to the lack of government's consumer protection. But the decision of the mobile operators was a result of the introduction of the Finance Act 2006, dated 22 December 2005, being a supplement to the Sierra Leone Gazette Vol. CXXXVI, No.67.

That could probably also be one of the emerging proofs behind some of the arguments forwarded by experts. Maxwell would argue that: "Competition has consumed regulation. Instead of competition being a major component or regulation, it is fast becoming a 'compound' of regulation. The market players have freewill with pricing, standardisation, consumer affairs, service delivery and service assurance” with the authorities silent on many issues facing the industry. So far, despite the fact that the telecom industry was one of post-conflict Sierra Leone's most successful economic success stories, the impact of the mobile phone revolution was coming against regulation.

Telecom experts here put it this way: “Introducing liberalisation and competition policies in an environment inherent with weak regulation, competing market players are likely to play a completely hostile role in regulatory reform and policy development.”