Sierra Leone Telegraph: 14 June 2018:
Momoh Konte, the outgoing chairman of Sierra Leone’s regulatory body for the telecommunications sector – NATCOM, has presented a detailed report on the state of the country’s telecommunications sector before leaving office.
His handing over document, which he presented this week to his newly appointed successor – SLPP chairman Dr Prince Harding, will be seen by many as his performance report, after several controversial years at the helm of NATCOM.
So what’s in the report?
This is Momoh Konte’s analysis and account of the state of Sierra Leone’s telecommunications sector.
In late January 2015, I was appointed as Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of NATCOM when the entire Board was dissolved by former President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma on the 20th January 2015. But I did not take up office until early March 2015,when the other Commissioners were appointed, and this was when the entire Board became fully constituted.
National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM) is a Statutory Telecommunications Regulatory Authority mandated to Licence and regulate the activities of all licensed Telecommunications Service Providers such as Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and other communications service providers in the Country.
During my tenure of office as Chairman of the Board of Commissioners, there has been a remarkable growth of the Telecommunications sector. This could be seen in the status of the sector highlighted below coupled with the several regulatory interventions of the Commission over the years.
THE STATUS OF TELECOMMUNICATIONS SECTOR IN SIERRA LEONE AS AT 31ST DECEMBER 2017
The Commission was established by an act of Parliament (The Telecommunications Act 2006 (as amended) to license and regulate the activities of Telecommunications Operators and other related communications service providers in the Country.
In regulating the sector, the functions of the Commission include but not limited to the following: To promote efficiency and fair competition, to protect the consumers of Telecommunications services, ensure the expansion of investment in the telecommunication sector and the progressive development of the telecommunication industry and technology in Sierra Leone.
The Commission Liaise with operators and other service providers in developing and updating the data relating to Telecommunications. It also acts as the interface between the ITU, CTO, ATU, WATRA & other International Telecommunications Organizations and represents the Country in all International Telecommunications conferences and other related events.
Presently, there are only two active GSM operators namely; Africell (SL) Limited and Orange (SL) Limited and one CDMA Operator namely; SIERRATEL which is in the process of migrating and rolling out the 4G Network.
Please see the status of the sector below, based on a survey conducted:
AFRICELL (SL) LTD: ACTIVE MOBILE SUBSCRIBERS (Post Paid) – 3,708
ACTIVE MOBILE SUBSCRIBERS (Pre-paid) – 3,574,126
ORANGE (SL) LTD: ACTIVE MOBILE SUBSCRIBERS (Post Paid) – 14,760
ACTIVE MOBILE SUBSCRIBERS (Pre-paid) – 1,614,818
SIERRATEL: ACTIVE MOBILE SUBSCRIBERS (Post Paid) – 20,885
TOTAL – 39,353 and 5,188,944
As illustrated above and from the data collected, mobile voice penetration is about 72 %. That is 72,000 people per 100,000 of the population have access to mobile voice communications services.
The Internet penetration nationwide is still low due to the inadequate Broadband capacity and the consequent slow rate of Broadband roll out in the Country. Although the Submarine Fibre Optic Cable landed in October 2011, there is still huge capacity of Bandwidth at the landing station that is yet to reach the end user.
The resultant effect of this is the high cost of data services and the accompanying problem of accessibility and the low Internet penetration rate. However, over the past three years, the cost of data services has been reduced to a manageable level and the Commission continues to put pressure on both SALCAB and the service providers to further reduce it.
NUMBER OF ACTIVE SUBSCRIBERS: ORANGE (SL) LTD. – 679,825; AFRICELL (SL) LTD. – 758,601
TOTAL – 1,438,426
Information collected from the internet subscribers shows that 19,034 per 100,000 of the population have access to internet. Thus, the penetration rate is still low about 20. 2 %. The average cost of data bundle per 100 Mega bite is Le 10,133/00.
OUTGOING AND INCOMING INTERNATIONAL TRAFFIC
The maximum International outgoing tariffs per minute including GST are set as follows:
i) Zone 1-USA, Canada, Western Europe, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, China, India – Le960
ii) Zone 2 – Rest of Africa- Le1, 980.
iii) Zone 3 – Eastern Europe- Le2, 580
iv) Zone 4 – South America, Caribbean, Oceania, South Pacific including Australia – Le2,580
v) Zone 5 – Asia – Le 2,700
vi) Zone 6 – Satellite calls and special services – Le30, 000
International incoming rate (wholesale) to Sierra Leone is set at $0.32 per minute subject to review as when it becomes necessary. The average cost of a domestic call per minute is as follows:
On net average cost – Le 529.7; Off net average cost – Le 664.7
Below is a summary of the penetration rate of both voice and data services from 2007 to 2017:
Mobile Penetration: 2007 – 10%; 2008 – 12%; 2009 – 24.7%; 2010 – 34%; 2011 – 49%; 2012 – 50%; 2013 – 62%; 2014 – 69.6%; 2015 – 72.9%; 2016 – 69.9%; 2017 – 73.4%.
Internet Penetration: 2007 – 0.26%; 2008 – 0.36%; 2009 – 1.0%; 2010 – 1.0%; 2011 – 2%; 2012 – 2.5%; 2013 – 4%; 2014 – 6.06%; 2015 – 6.7%; 2016 – 18.8%; 2017 – 20.2%.
THE REGULATORY INTERVENTIONS OF THE COMMISSION
For the past three years, the Commission as a regulator has done certain regulatory interventions so as to contribute in stimulating the growth of the sector. These interventions as follows:
• NATCOM has implemented a liberalized market through the establishment of Multiple International Gateways system in the country by granting International Gateway Licences. This created the enabling environment for International Gateway Licensees to install, own and operate International Gateway facilities in the Country. Coupled with this is the granting of 4G Licences to two Operators. All these regulatory interventions are geared toward ensuring accessibility and affordability of telecommunications services nationwide.
• NATCOM has also developed several Regulations such as Allocation and Assignment of Frequencies, Access and Interconnection regulations, Numbering Regulations, Licensing and Quality of Service regulations, Regulatory Guidelines for International Gateway Licensing in the Country and Registration of SIM/UIM Regulations. All these regulations are intended to sanitize the market and to promote the sustainable growth of the sector.
• The other regulatory reform that has been implemented by NATCOM is the lowering of entry requirements for Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The Commission has established a two-tier Licensing regime for ISPs (Tier1 and Tier2) that would greatly improve the Internet penetration in the country.
• Another regulatory intervention that has been implemented by the Commission is the lowering of regulatory fees for VSAT Operators in the rural and underserved areas of the country.
• The Commission has also facilitated the efficiency and autonomy of the Universal Access Development Fund (UADF) so as to ensure access to communication services by the population including those living in the remote areas of the Country. The rationale behind this is to use communication as a potent means to fight extreme poverty due to the invaluable role it plays in the process. The establishment of UADF and the increased effectiveness in the utilization of the fund is to ensure that communication in Sierra Leone becomes easier and cheaper for everyone.
CATEGORIES OF LICENSED COMMUNICATIONS SERVICE PROVIDERS
(A) MOBILE OPERATORS
• Orange (SL) Limited.
• Lintel (SL) Limited operating under the Brand Name of Africell (SL) Limited.
• SIERRATEL the historic Operator. These are the remaining active Operators in the Country.
(B) INTERNET SERVICE PROVIDERS (ISPs)
There are four major and active ISPs as listed below.
• AFCOM (SL) Limited
• Onlime (SL) Limited
• Atlas Communications
(C) We also have One Hundred and Thirty Five (135) FM Radio Stations nationwide which are co-regulated by IMC and NATCOM. The Commission assigns spectrum frequencies to these Radio Stations and regulates the utilization of those Frequencies, whilst the Independent Media Commission (IMC) issues Licences to broadcast and regulates the content of these FM Radio Stations.
Therefore, broadcast services are still co-regulated by NATCOM and IMC until converged regulation becomes feasible in the Country.
THE NATURE OF MY FUNCTIONS AS CHAIRMAN
As stated earlier, NATCOM is a statutory Telecoms Regulatory Authority and the performance of my functions as Chairman of the Board of Commissioners is two-fold namely;
(A) Functions relating to the policy aspect of the Commission and
(B) Those functions relating to the regulatory framework of the Commission.
When the International Gateway was liberalized on the 6th March 2015 by the Telecommunications Amendment Act 2015, all issues of the transition period from the Monopoly to a fully liberalized Telecommunications market were mainly policy issues. From the date of the liberalization of the said International Gateway to the second quarter of 2016, the Commission was in the process of addressing those policies geared towards ensuring a smooth transition period.
This transition period ended in the second quarter of 2016 when the Commission (NATCOM) granted five International Gateway Licences, thereby completing as a matter of policy, the termination of the monopoly of the International Gateway hitherto vested in SIERRATEL.
The end of this policy process ushered in a liberalized Telecoms market in Sierra Leone in which all the Licensed International Gateway operators now owned and operate their International Gateways.
Alongside the implementation of the policy aspect of the Commission, there is also the implementation of the following projects:
THE INTERNATIONAL GATEWAY MONITORING PLATFORM
This project relates to the establishment of a monitoring platform for the monitoring of the provision of International Gateways’ services by all International Gateway Licensees in Sierra Leone, for the very first time in the history of the Telecoms Sector in the Country.
The climax of this process is the awarding of the contract to Subah Infosolutions Limited for the monitoring of both local and International traffic. The award of contract was done by the procurement committee of the Commission through the International competitive bidding process consistent with the procurement rules and regulations of the National Public Procurement Authority (NPPA) Act.
The provision of the monitoring services is now on-going.
RESTRUCTURING OF THE COMMISSION
I have also provided strategic leadership direction in ensuring the restructuring of the Commission between 2016 and 2017. The completion of this restructuring exercise has seen the creation of two new Departments in the Commission namely:
(i) Department of Planning, Research and Business Development.
(ii) Department of Regulatory Administration.
In addition to these new departments, the then existing designations in the Commission have also been restructured with new nomenclatures to ensure best practice, efficiency and productivity in the performance of the duties relating to those designations.
However, because of budgetary accommodation and other considerations, the position of Director of Regulatory Administration was discussed at a Board Meeting and placed under the Deputy Director General’s office. The position requires serious experience in the sector, same as a law and engineering qualification.
THE COMMISSION’S BUILDING PROJECT
It is during my tenure of office as Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of NATCOM that the Commission commenced the implementation of the above-mentioned project. The award of the contracts to both the Architect Consultant and the Building Contractor for the construction of the Commission’s Head Office Building was also done in accordance with the NPPA Procurement Act, rules and regulations. Suffice it to say that the almost completed edifice of this Head Office comprising Ten (10) floors will speak for itself.
ROAMING AND ONE AREA NETWORK
It was also during my tenure of office as Chairman that, the Commission initiated the idea of the Mano River Union (MRU) Countries to cooperate and implement the One Area Network, whereby the Telecoms operators of these countries would be able to provide effective Telecommunications services under the One Area Network, as part of the harmonization of policies and regulatory frameworks in these Countries relating to the Telecommunications Sector.
Roaming is also a very vital communication tool. The Commission in collaboration with other ECOWAS Countries is assiduously working on issues applicable to roaming. This is to ensure the accessibility and affordability of roaming services in the sub region. Note: There are already regulations in force on Roaming applicable to ECOWAS Countries.
IMPROVEMENT OF THE REGULATORY RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN NATCOM AND THE FOLLOWING EXTERNAL BODIES
Over the years, the Commission has greatly improved on the regulatory relationship with external telecommunications bodies. This was done through the Commission’s active participation in international conferences and other events organized and hosted by the following telecommunications bodies:
1. International Telecommunications Union (ITU)
2. Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization (CTO)
3. West Africa Telecommunications Regulators’ Assembly (WATRA)
4. Mano River Union Countries (MRU)
5. Federal Communications Commission of the United States of America (FCC)
6. Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC)
7. National Communications Authority of Ghana (NCA)
8. Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA)
There are MOUs in principle with some of these external bodies.
THE BIG DATA PROJECT
This was launched in August 2015 during the Big Data Conference as one of the assistance sought and received by the Commission from ITU. The Big Data Conference was co-organized by NATCOM and ITU and hosted by NATCOM in August 2015 in Freetown.
This is a forum organized and hosted by NATCOM periodically whereby Operators and members of the public (consumers) sit together and discuss issues relating to the sector and take decisions reflecting the interests of consumers, operators and the overriding interest of the sector.
PUBLIC PARTNERSHIP DIALOGUE (PPD)
I initiated this practice to ensure participation by both the public, NATCOM and Operators. The Commission has the statutory mandate to approve and regulate the tariffs payable for telecommunications services in the Country. In the light of this, the Public Partnership Dialogue is an event organized and hosted by the Commission and attended by MNOs, civil society organizations, the press and a cross section of consumers.
It is a participatory event in which issues relating to tariffs and the quality of service provided by the Operators are discussed before the Commission approves an increase in tariffs on certain terms and conditions, such as improvement of the quality of service provided by Operators.
INTERNET EXCHANGE POINT
The establishment of the Internet Exchange Point is also being pursued by the Commission and it would soon be completed.
MODIFICATION OF THE NATIONAL NUMBERING PLAN
Due to the growth of the sector in the Country and the possibility for further growth, the Commission is working with the operators to have a modified National Numbering Plan (NNP) from Six to Seven Digits. The Commission is hopeful that this will continue to contribute immensely to the growth and development of the sector in the Country.
THE LEGAL AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
Several legal and regulatory issues were addressed by the Commission during my tenure of office. These issues included but not limited to the following:
Regulating all existing GSM Operators, SIERRATEL (CDMA), ISPs, FM
Radio Stations and other service providers so as to ensure compliance with the statutory regulatory mandate of the Commission. In the process, quality of service issues have been regulated and the regulation of these issues is still on-going as regulating the sector is a process.
Ensuring a safer Cyber Space. Through the activities of the Cyber Security Task Force of the Commission, comprising representatives from NATCOM, SIERRATEL, Police Personnel attached to the Criminal Investigation Department (C.I.D) Headquarters and the Office of National Security (ONS).
During the period under review, several raids were carried out by the above-mentioned Task Force. All these raids were geared towards combating Cyber threats so as to ensure the security of the State and to create the enabling environment for Revenue Assurance.
In that direction, several arrests were made of several people suspected to be involved in illegal call termination. They were charged to Court and successfully prosecuted. In some cases, the Commission imposed fines and other regulatory penalties on these SIM Box fraudsters.
THE COMMISSION’S PENDING MATTERS IN COURT
In the process of ensuring compliance on the part of service providers, the Commission has three (3) pending cases in the High Court of Sierra Leone. Two of them are instituted by the Commission in trying to enforce compliance and the other one is being instituted against the Commission whilst also trying to do the same. These cases are as follows:
(a) NATCOM -VS- SMART MOBILE
(b) NATCOM -VS- TRANSNATIONAL (SL) LIMITED (DSTV)
(c) ONLIME (SL) LIMITED -VS-NATCOM
The details on all of them will be made known to my Successor.
In carrying out its statutory regulatory mandate, the Commission has both Medical and Legal retainers that have been providing satisfactory and appreciable medical and legal services for the Commission over the years.
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN NATCOM AND THE MINISTRY OF INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATIONS (MIC)
In the performance of the functions of the Commission, the Ministry of Information and Communications is the line Ministry of the Commission. The Ministry is NOT performing a supervisory role over the Commission. Under Section 11 of the Telecommunications Act 2006 (as amended), the Ministry is to give Ministerial support to the Commission in the performance of its statutory regulatory functions.
The Communications sector is very dynamic. Issues surrounding the sector and the technologies utilized in the provision of the Telecommunications services keep on changing rapidly. In the Sierra Leone context, the Regulator came into existence long after the Operators and other service providers have been in the market.
Therefore, due to the dynamic nature of the sector globally, one of the challenges in regulating the sector in Sierra Leone over the years is that of catching up with the Operators and other service providers. I am now pleased to say that we are indeed catching up with them.
The other challenge is that of ensuring that the existing major operators in the Country continue to provide the services in respect of which the Licences were granted. Before my assumption of Office, two of them had already gone out of the market-Comium (SL) Limited and Ambitel (SL) Limited, remaining only two active Operators (Africell (SL) Limited and Orange (SL) Limited plus the State owned Operator, SIERRATEL.
The Commission has Five (5) Zonal Offices located in five major Provincial towns as follows:
(a) Makeni Zonal office
(b) Bo Zonal office
(c) Kenema Zonal office
(d) Port Loko Zonal office
(e) Kono Zonal office
It is also a challenge in ensuring that these zonal offices are fully operational so that the presence of the Commission as a regulator is felt all over the Country.
In concluding these handing over notes, it is imperative for me to make recommendations so as to ensure the effective performance of the functions of the Commission. These recommendations are as follows:
- The Commission has a Management team headed by a Director-General who is responsible for the day to day administration and management of the Commission. In the performance of these functions, the Commission should encourage and motivate Management and staff of the Commission. Because, these are the people who will continue to work relentlessly for the success of the Board headed by the Chairman and the Commission as a whole.
2. As Chairman of the Board, the primary responsibility in the performance of the functions of the Commission is to ensure regulatory compliance on the part of the operators. Compliance in this context implies not only prompt payment of Licence and other regulatory fees, it also includes general compliance in providing quality of services and the affordability of those services. Therefore, regulating the sector is an art and a balancing act.
MAINTAIN BALANCE BETWEEN ENFORCEMENT OF COMPLIANCE AND PROTECTION OF THE INVESTMENT OF THE OPERATORS
3. Communication services are still not accessible by and affordable to a lot of people especially those living in the most remote parts of the Country. Generally, the high cost of communications services in the Country is due largely to the high cost of doing business on the part of Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) in the Country. In other words, the effect of multiple taxation imposed on MNOs is being passed on to the consumers by the Operators, thereby making affordability of these services by the general public an uphill task.
Thus, it is recommended that the Commission applies a regulatory intervention to the issue of multiple taxation with a view to have these taxes reviewed favourably in the interest of the sector. This in turn, would encourage the operators to invest more in their network expansion and improve the quality of service as well.
4. It is strongly recommended that, the Commission do a follow up on the status of the Draft Communications Act intended to repeal the Telecommunications Act 2006 (as amended). This draft is now almost five years old. The Commission in collaboration with the Ministry of Information and Communications has conducted several workshops for the validation of this draft. It has already been validated for over two years now. But it still remains a draft and is yet to go to Parliament to be debated on and becomes law.
5. It is also hereby recommended that the Commission should heavily rely on the ECOWAS Supplementary Act 2007 not only in the performance of its regulatory functions, but also in its dealings with other institutions in the Country.
Article 12 of these ECOWAS supplementary Acts 2007 makes provision for the financial autonomy of all Telecommunications Regulatory Bodies in the sub region and for the harmonization of policies in the regulation of the Telecommunications sector.
The Commission must remain very financially strong so as to effectively regulate the sector and to enable it discharges both its internal and external obligations to external Communications bodies like CTO, ITU and several other Telecommunications organizations.
The protection of this financial autonomy and the utilization of its funds is provided for under Section 111 (2) paragraph (b) of the Constitution of Sierra Leone 1991 Act No.6 of 1991 and also Section 11A Subsection (4) of the Telecommunications Amendment Act 2009.
But if the financial autonomy of the Commission is not guaranteed, then the service providers would have a field day in the provision of their services to consumers, which would not augur well for the Country.
- It is hereby further recommended that the independence of the Commission should be protected and maintained at all times. The Commission is an independent corporate institution that shall not be subjected to the direction of any authority or person as best practice also demands in the performance of its regulatory functions. This independence is enshrined in Section 10 of the Telecommunications Act 2006 (as amended).
7. Section 13 of the Telecommunications Act 2006 (as amended) provided for the establishment of the Universal Access Development Fund (UADF). It is a Fund created under the Act to ensure that the most remote parts of the Country have access to communication services that are affordable.
The Operators are contributing annually to this Fund that is being managed by staff of its own supervised by a Board of Trustees presently chaired by the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Communications.
The Commission working in collaboration with its Board of Trustees, is in the process of making UADF autonomous so as to make it separate and distinct from NATCOM. But this is a process and NATCOM is still providing regulatory assistance to UADF so as to ensure effective management and sustainability of the Fund.
The continuation of this regulatory assistance is recommended because it is still much needed, until UADF becomes fully autonomous.
8. Procurement of goods and services and all other procurement issues of the Commission are very sensitive in nature. Thus, I hereby also strongly recommend that since there is a procurement committee chaired by the Director General of the Commission, all Members of the Board of Commissioners should not be directly involved in handling any and all procurement issues of the Commission.
9. There is a Finance Sub-Committee set up by the office of the Chairman as Section 12 of the Telecommunications Act 2006 (as amended) provides for the formation of such committees to be headed by a member of the Board.
Notwithstanding the formation and composition of these sub-committees including the Finance Sub-Committee, it is also strongly recommended that all members of the Board of Commissioners including the Chairman of the Finance Sub-Committee should not be directly or indirectly involved in handling any and all financial transactions of the Commission.
In conclusion, let me take this opportunity to thank all Board Members, Management and staff of the Commission for their unflinching support to me during my tenure of office.
Finally, these handing over notes and recommendations are expected to serve as a guide that would greatly assist in the continuation of the effective performance of the functions of the Commission and the effective regulation of the Telecommunication Sector in the interest of its continuing growth and in the overall interest of the Country.
Submitted this 12th day of June 2018
Momoh Kemoh Konte
National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM)