A Raggedy History
The decade long history of Sierra Leone’s relationship with the mobile phone is fraught with series of ups and downs. The first of these companies to materialise on the scene is Celtel, which has metamorphoses over the years into what is now called Airtel. Then there was Millicom (Tigo), then Commium and Africell after that. All of these companies have had their fair share of the customer base for obvious reasons – calling from one network to the other has always been more expensive. Callers have always had the inordinate and burdensome experience of walking around with 2, 3 or 4 phones from all of the mobile companies. It’s been a mean feat for some, while others have become adept in joggling from one phone to the other.
In the infant stages of mobile phone in the country, Celtel sold their Sims cards in dollars, and user deposits were required at the time. With the advent of competition, when other GSM companies were introduced in the country, Celtel lost its monopoly, causing it to relinquish its dollar-centric hold on the market. Soon many more Sierra Leoneans registered with the mobile companies. It is not uncommon to see billboards of one GSM company or the other claiming that they have exceed the million-man marker of registered Sims cards and so on. That could only be good for their bottom lines, but of what good to the customers?
The Role of NATCOM
The National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM) was established by an Act of Parliament to regulate the operations these mobile phone companies, among other responsibilities. In 2011, following several public complaints, the Commission announced that it was levying a fine of $450,000 (four hundred and fifty thousand US dollars) on one of the leading service providers, Airtel for an unspecified breach of Act. It is not known whether Airtel paid the amount to the regulator at the time. What is clear however is that the challenges mobile phone users have been grappling with still remain.
A senior NATCOM source familiar with development observed that Airtel was singled out unfairly, “considering that most of the other companies are as guilty of the same offense as Airtel”. “Not true”, says Abdul Kuyateh, Public Relations Office at the Commission. “In fact, the Commission has been working closely with the GSM companies to ensure that they improve on service delivery”, he explained in telephone conversation with this writer. Mr. Kuyateh further noted that the companies are in the process of “upgrading their facilities to meet the satisfaction of their customers”.
NATCOM My Foot
But one Member of Parliament (MP) of the main opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) and member of the Telecommunications Committee in the last Parliament is not impressed “these NATCOM people are in cohort with the mobile companies”. He claims that NATCOM will keep defending the mobile companies “as long as they (mobile companies) do not reveal to the public the real amount of money that they pay to NATCOM”. He further noted that some of the companies have a lot of political support, so even the NATCOM officials are afraid of them. He singled out Airtel, which he claims sent out text messages “barely days before the start of the campaigns defaming the SLPP Presidential Candidate”. Asked to substantiate his evidence, the MP showed a text message on his Airtel phone from a 444 number which read “Julius Maada Bio will be arrested and arraigned in court for defrauding two international businessmen of their hard-earned cash”. The visibly angry MP further noted that this was a clear violation of the NATCOM Act, but that no action was taken or will be taken against the service provider “because their defamatory text benefitted the ruling party”.
June-Rose Johnson, Head of PR and Corporate Communications begs to defer. She claims that her company does not enjoy any political favours from any quarters. She however declined to speak to the specifics of the MP’s allegations, suggesting only that the text was sent by one of their partners in Nairobi and that the company is Sierra Leone had nothing to do with it. On the general issues of the reliability of their service, Ms. Johnson assured their consumers “we are not at 100% but we are doing our best to satisfy our customers”. She admitted that some of the challenges they normally face has to do with bad weather, while boasting that they always “proactive in handling such situations”. “We are in this business to make our customers happy”, she concluded.
Whatever the arguments, it is obvious that the GSM companies are not living up to the expectations of their consumers. Whether the regulatory body is serious about ensuring that they do just that is entirely another matter. What is evident at this point is that they have not been doing much. A study commissioned by the Commission to look into the performance of these companies has not made its findings public 2 years later. That is even why the Deputy Minister’s statement that they (mobile companies) are “biting more than they can chew” is music to the ears of many Sierra Leoneans. Whether it will fulfil their desires is left to time.