Addressing a major news conference on wide range of national and international issues on 18 May 2004, the Minister of Post and Telecommunication, Eugene Lenn Nagbe accused Professor Willie Belleh, chief of Staff to the office of Chairman Charles Gyude Bryant, of perpetuating the de facto monopoly being enjoyed by the Lone Star Communication Company at the expense of free enterprise, equality and competitive services and the reduction of prices.
Minister Nagbe said “our attention has been drawn to a letter under the signature of Professor Willie Belleh addressed to Celcom Telecommunications Corporation, advising said company, among other things, to halt ongoing rollout activities including procurement and importation of all telecommunication equipment, installation of facilities and operation of (Celcom’s) network pending a comprehensive review by a three-man Special Presidential Committee”.
According to him, his administration has logically arrived at the deduction that the main intent of the circular letter is not to “review the telecommunications environment”, but to perpetuate the de facto monopoly now being enjoyed by Lone Star at the expense of free enterprise, quality and competitive services and the reduction of prices which will be accrued there-from. Why do we say this, he asked and said “we say this because while other would-be operators are being advised by the learned Professor to halt rollout, he rather conveniently decided not to write any letter to Lone Star.”
He told journalists that Celcom has requested the Ministry of Posts & Telecommunications to intervene and provide guidance on the matter. With Celcom having met all of the requirements mentioned supra, the Ministry of Posts & Telecommunications has accordingly informed that company to disregard Professor Belleh’s “advise” and continue to deploy and subsequently operate a GSM cellular network utilizing assigned frequencies & numbering plan.
Speaking further, Minister Nagbe said in his letter, apart from mentioning the formation of a “Special Presidential Telecommunications Committee”, Belleh also mentioned what he described as an “explosion of cellular phone operators and the granting of numerous GSM licenses, VSATs, FSS International Gateway privileges, and Internet services provider authorizations”.
Although no monopoly was granted to Lone Star on paper, it was ensured that a de facto monopoly prevailed through the outright refusal to grant a second commission, and by Lone Star’s extensive use and reservation of coveted frequencies in the GSM 900 band, Minister Nagbe added.
“As we approach the four-year mark of its operation, Lone Star’s de facto monopoly still exists, and persists, now apparently with the determined effort of some individuals parading the halls of power. Our determination on the other hand, has remained to ensure the liberalization of the GSM market”, he indicated.
Propounding further, the Minister asked? Who now has a VSAT with very wide capabilities? Lone Star! Who now has the most extensive frequency in-use and in-reservation? Lone Star! Who has the only operational GSM license? Lone Star! If there is a need to conduct a review of the telecommunications environment, one would think it would be but fair to begin with the one and only GSM cellular operator.
According to Minister Nagbe, at present, the incumbent GSM operator runs an approximate subscriber base of over 50,000. A rough but conservative estimate puts the average call cost of subscribers a US$50 per month. He disclosed that Lone Star has 50,000 customers and if each of the customers pays US$50.00 per month, the company generates over US$ 2 million. If that is a “negligible figure”, then one should question the basis of Dr. Vandi’s assertion. How can one say, as far back as 2003, that the market was overcrowded when in fact we had only one operator?, he asked.
Regarding the constitution of a “Special Presidential Telecommunications Committee”, Minister Nagbe said his ministry is of the view that discussions between my boss and us should remain confidential.
Minister Nagbe however noted that few of his close aides are of a different belief and have decided to bring such a discussion to the public in a different light, “thus constraining us to clarify and properly rearrange the facts. We were recently called by the Chairman to clarify some issues regarding the telecom sector. Chairman Bryant raised concerns over the alleged multiplicity of would-be GSM operators, yardstick and conditions for qualification to operate, yardstick for fees and how could GOL acquire maximum revenue intake by and through the operation of these network.”
He asked that I work along with Professor Belleh and Dr. Vandi in providing answers to these concerns. At a second meeting which this time included two of my deputies, Sekou Kromah & Towah A. Towah, basically the same issues were raised.
He said the National Legislature of the Republic of Liberia, in 1978, created an Act to establish the Ministry of Posts & Telecommunications. The Act granted authority to the Minister of Posts & Telecommunications among other functions to manage frequencies, enforce technical standards, inspect telecommunication facilities, license operators and ascertain and submit financial statement of LTC to the National Legislature. Throughout my tenure, we have to the best of my ability undertaken to implement these provisions of the Act in the interest of our country.
According to Minister Nagbe, the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication cannot allow any portion of its statutory responsibilities to be usurped by individuals whose portfolios were created without any foundation in law or logic. If there is a desire to reduce the statutory powers of the Minister of Posts & Telecommunications and by extension make useless the ministry itself simply to maintain an irrational monopoly, then let those who want to do so seek legislative enactment.
“I will deal with the very fundamental legal issues raised by this letter, which we have also learned was served upon AWLI and Comium. AWLI, which acquired a license prior to our incumbency, has been asked by this Ministry to address and clarify the issues of frequency assignment and payment of fees before being allowed to activate their network while some unresolved issues with Comium have arisen.”
He told the news conference that GSM is a technology, which like others before it might become obsolete. We are forward-looking people. The vast area of advancement in Information and Communications Technology is the Internet and the extensive protocols it has to offer.
He said in places like neighboring Ghana, video-teleconferencing from remote villages to the hub of city life is being employed utilizing Voice and Video of Internet Protocol while the VOIP fixed wireless phone has now been proven to have capabilities which might be invaluable assets to an underdeveloped country like ours which has had most of its infrastructures damaged, he indicated in a serious mood.
Besides, he said electronic mail might also provide a solution in the near future to the present encumbrances of bulk mail sorting and movement in the absence of adequate facilities and suggested that some of these experts who are parading their self-anointed priesthoods re-focus on the vast potentials that the future holds instead of asking that we remain tied to failed linkages to the past.
“No country’s telecommunications industry is built solely on a mobile system. The National Telecommunications Corporation is generally the backbone for other operating systems. It should provide the international gateway”, he said.
The telecommunication, Minister Nagbe said, we should provide cheap and affordable land-line services to the public through an extensive, effective network crisscrossing the country. Sadly, this is not the case. Years and years of ineffective management, compounded by the civil war, have left the Liberia Telecommunications Corporation in shambles and unable to perform its traditional and statutory responsibility.
“Today, the decline has culminated into a strike by employees, technicians and professionals who are tired of contributing their expertise only to be subjected to the humiliation of not being able to show any fruit for their labor. We must reverse this trend”, he explained.
He said the sorry decline of the LTC coincided with the explosion of the revolution in GSM technology and in 2000, with heavy political backing of the previous regime, the Lone Star Communication Corporation was granted the privilege to operate the sole GSM cellular network in the country.
Besides, Minister Nagbe said the ministry has renewed an agreement between one of our predecessors, Mawaseh Paye-Bayee and a group, Ducor/Optima with Amb. Jallah Kamara as one of its representatives. “We renewed this agreement because the Paye-Bayee agreement was summarily “frozen” by another of our predecessors, Melvin Sogbandi. However, Mr. Kamara and his group soon proved to be unable to live to the terms of the agreement, his technical project and his planned roll-out schedule.”
He said the failure to perform and live up to the terms of the agreement was culminated into a request by him to ‘transfer’ the license to a group, Celtel Liberia Limited represented by one Mr. Wunker. The Ministry of Posts & Telecommunications was left with no alternative but to issue a revocation of said license in keeping with our statutory responsibility and with internationally, generally accepted practices, Minister Nagbe added.
The criteria for the operation of a GSM mobile cellular network, according to him include a formal declaration of intent, presentation of articles of incorporation, presentation of business registration certificate & GOL receipts, presentation of a business, technical project proposal.
He named NIC Investment incentive agreement, a review and evaluation of technical plan by our ministry to determine the workability and compatibility of said plan to local and international standards and entering into an MOU with the would-be operator outlining responsibilities of both parties and payment of license fees into GOL revenues, adherence to rollout schedule while other criteria are issuance of a non-operational license certificate and assignment of frequency and numbering plan, among others.