From Awareness Times Newspaper in Freetown

The Mobile Phone Saga
By Sylvester Johnson
Jan 26, 2010, 17:08

Over the past few weeks we have seen a number of articles appearing in newspapers on the issue of the fine imposed by NATCOM on two mobile phone companies in the country. This seeming conflict between NATCOM and mobile companies has drawn a lot of attention and much has been said and written about it. I have decided to weigh in with my views now because I believe that much of what has been said has hit the nail on the head, but a number of points have so far been missed.

Let me at this point state that I have had significant experience of telecommunication in Sierra Leone, Europe and a number of African countries, so I consider myself a bit of an expert. I believe the way the mobile phone industry is being run in this country leaves much to be desired, and I will endeavour to set out my thoughts on this in this article.

In the first place, there are too many mobile phone companies in the country competing for the relatively small market we have and there are rumours that more are coming. Added to this is the fact that one of the operators has a monopoly of the international gateway, thus giving it an unfair advantage over all the others. But we have a regulator, NATCOM that is supposed to ensure there is a level playing field for all operators.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that NATCOM has not fully understood its role and so seems to be concentrating more on being a policeman than an effective regulator. Indeed one of the roles of a regulator is to ensure that the public gets a fair deal, but this is just one of its functions, not the only one. I have a feeling that the NATCOM officials believe this is their main function, and so this is what they are focusing on. This explains why we constantly seem to have acrimonious interaction between the telecommunications operators and NATCOM, and so far it seems to be mainly over pricing of the services being provided by the operators.

I am not saying NATCOM should not be concerned about the price, but it needs to concern itself with much more than that. Effectively, a regulator is supposed to stand in the gap between the consumers and the operators, and should actively seek to protect the interests of both parties. This is also better done through constructive dialogue in a spirit of partnership rather than in a spirit of confrontation. I have seen this kind of thing happen in other countries, particularly when the regulator is new on the job and is trying to define its role. Almost inevitably, the regulator tends to see itself as the champion of the people and this usually leads to conflict with the operators. It usually takes a while for some regulators to realise that the regulator is not the champion of the people. It is the champion of the industry, put in place to ensure the growth and development of the industry; the rational use of the countryís frequency spectrum (air waves ); to ensure there is a level playing field among operators; and to see that consumers are treated fairly and get value for money.

Having said all this, I will now pose a few questions to NATCOM which if they can answer in the affirmative will indicate that they are indeed a good regulator.

1. Is there a mechanism in place for regular consultations with the telecoms operators, particularly before introduction of any new regulation?

2. Did NATCOM hold consultations with the telecoms operators and the NRA prior to the introduction of the GST in the country to ensure that there was clarity in relation to how it would affect the pricing (top-up cards and tariff)?

3. Is NATCOM doing anything to have the Act that gives monopoly of the international gateway to one operator amended in order to ensure a level playing field among operators?

4. Does NATCOM see it as a duty to ensure telecoms operators remain profitable, and is it doing anything to remove barriers or provide support for this? In other words, short of the companies failing due to internal shortcomings? Is NATCOM providing the kind of support that will ensure they donít fail?

5. Does NATCOM sees telecoms operators as it partners or does it see them as antagonists or foreign interlocutors that need to be kept under control?

My last word for now will be to appeal to NATCOM and all telecoms operators to find a way to work amicably together and get rid of the acrimony. If it is individual egos that are getting in the way of achieving this, itís time to bring those egos under control and focus on what is good for the industry and the nation as a whole.

© Copyright 2005, Freetown, Sierra Leone.