The End of Liberia's Cellular Phone Problem is in Sight!


By George H. Nubo

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

September 4, 2004

Before I left for Liberia in July, one of the first things I considered was a cell phone. I made sure that I got a phone that could work in the country – and I succeeded. I did not have to purchase a new telephone because my wife’s old T-Mobile phone did the trick. The first day after my arrival in Monrovia, I activated the phone and bought a US$15.00 scratch card, assuming that that would solve my communication problem. It didn’t. What it did efficiently was to enable me to experience the problems that our brothers and sisters have to go through on a daily basis. On our way back from the Lone Star office in central Monrovia to Paynesville, we stopped in Sinkor at a gas station opposite what used to be Relda, at which time I decided to try my “new” phone. I attempted to call a friend who works at the Elections Commission not knowing that the Commission was just adjacent to my location. On the first attempt, I was told that the phone was either switched off or the customer was out of the coverage area.

It seems like everybody sports a cellphone in Monrovia - even cellphones that have been disconnected due to subscribers' inability to buy scratchcards.
I was putting my phone back in its case when my associate asked me what had happened. I explained. He advised me to keep trying. On the sixth attempt my friend answered. He told me to still put at the gas station. About three minutes later, he arrived at the gas station. We embraced each other and exchanged pleasantries. I then asked him about the cell phone problem. To my surprise he said they encounter such problems every day. Not only that, dropped calls and poor clarity have become the staple of Lone Star cell phone service. When asked as to what has been done about these problems, he said, “nothing”. I told him that they were being robbed. Though in Monrovia it seems like everybody has a cell phone, nobody is screaming at Lone Star. Even government officials depend on the service! But nobody dares to say anything about the poor customer service or what consumer advocate Clark Howard calls “customer non-service.”

There is no consumer advocacy group. I began to wonder why everybody is complacent. Does it mean that Charles Taylor and the war launched by him have transformed Liberians into compliant subjects? Why nothing, be it public or private, works in the country nowadays? Is it a curse?

With these questions lingering on my mind, I left Liberia. On my way back, though very sick throughout the journey, I started to comfort myself by concluding that our best (I mean true patriots) will return to help rebuild this country. Names of engineers, accountants, professors, computer scientists, information technologists, and you name it, started popping up in my mind. Yes, our best minds could return, coupled with those already in the country could put an end to the problem of brain-drain in Liberia.

And not too long after my arrival in the US, I had the privilege to meet a group of Liberians that have a company that could answer some of my unanswered questions, i.e., solutions to Liberia’s telecommunication problems.

The company to which I am referring is: Liberia Wireless Corporation or LIWICO. LIWICO is a majority Liberian owned company. However, it is open to investors. I was told that during the initial stages of operation, LIWICO plans to focus on “Cellular Services in the 900 MHz range, using GSM technology” in Montserrado and nearby counties like Mount Gibi and Bassa, and will eventually expand its operation to other counties. In addition to Cellular Services, LIWICO intends to add Internet service provision to its menu.

Since competition promotes choice and quality services, LIWICO will be a competitor to Lone Star, a company many believe owned by Charles Taylor, his associates and their foreign partners. Based on the information I gathered while in Monrovia, Lone Star appears to have a monopoly over the cellular phone business in Liberia. One individual I spoke with said that during the Taylor administration, roadblocks were erected that made it very difficult for other companies to compete with Lone Star.

According to Mr. Eugene Bedell and Mr. Steve Olu Adams, part-owners of LIWICO, one of the company’s aims is to provide high quality GSM and American style customer service, which seems to be foreign to Liberians. It plans to provide employment opportunities for Liberian technicians residing in the US who are desirous to return home. It will also recruit and train Liberians on the ground to serve in their company. These gentlemen believe that their company will have an enormous impact on the Liberian economy. And based on their projection, LIWICO will pump millions of dollars into the Liberian economy annually.

After they provided me with all they were going to provide to the Liberian consumers, I then proceeded to find out the background of their management team. Find below brief backgrounds of the individuals that make up the partnership of LIWICO: James Elliott, MD, Mr. Eugene Bedell and Mr. Steve Olu Adams.

James Elliott, MD is currently the President of a Maryland based Pathology Corporation in the United States. He has over ten years of management experience and serves as Clinical Assistant professor of pathology at George Washington University Medical School. Dr. Elliott is Chairman of the Board of Directors of LIWICO.

Eugene Bedell is currently the President of Advance Telecom Process LLC, (ADTELP), a Virginia based telecom consulting firm. Prior to ADTELP, Mr. Bedell held several high level positions in telecom and finance areas, which includes Vice President of Client Solutions at Teldata Control, Senior Manager at MCI, Senior Manager at IBM and Vice President of Finance of Virginia Neurological Center. Mr. Bedell holds a BS in Economics and a MBA in Finance. He is the President and CEO of LIWICO.

Steve Olu Adams is currently serving as President of A&S Technical Services. Also, he serves as Senior Enterprise consultant to the US Defense department; Director for Enterprise Services for the Wabash Corporation, a multi-million dollar IT venture in Atlanta, Georgia USA. Prior to his current working arrangements, he worked with the multi-national corporation Unisys System and Technology group, where he served as the director for Latin America, Pacific, Asia and the Caribbean. Mr. Adams’ previous work experience includes the IBM Corporation, where he held several mid-level technical managerial positions. Mr. Adams has a bachelor degree in Management Systems from Mercer University in Atlanta, Georgia and a Master's degree in Information Systems from George Washington University, Washington, DC. He is a Senior Vice President of operations of LIWICO.

What I gathered from our discussion was that, even with their knowledge, expertise, secure funding and their laudable effort, they had some difficulties in Liberia. For example, LIWICO was granted a license and given a spectrum to operate GSM and Internet services in Liberia, but they learned later on that there were other companies that were given the same frequency allotted to them. As a result, a moratorium was put in place to delay the operations of these registered telecom companies by the Post and Telecommunication Ministry in order to make the necessary corrections.

AWLI/Libercell ignores government's order
However, while the moratorium was still in effect, AWLI/LIBERCELL and LISCR decided to continue the construction of their infrastructure and testing, anyway. It appears that the Post and Telecommunication Ministry, the ministry responsible for licensing these companies now wants to reduce the number of companies because the proliferation of GSM companies seems to be causing problems.

Sometime during the 1970s, it was stated that the economy and for that matter, the economic resources of Liberia were totally in the hands of foreigners; and that most of the wealth produced from the exploitations of the resources of the country flowed into the coffers of those foreigners and a small clique of Liberians. At that time, many Liberians felt that since the wealth of the country belongs to the people, it needed to benefit all of them. Since the 70s, many things have not changed. As a matter of fact, “the condition has gotten worse,” says a Liberian businessman.

Telecommunication can be considered a “national security issue!” In fact, most of the companies operating in Liberia, in the telecommunication business are not majority Liberian owned. There is no country in the world where foreigners control the entire telecommunication infrastructure. For example, in the US, there are foreign Telecommunication companies, but the vast majority of these Telecommunication infrastructures are controlled by US companies – more specifically, for security reason. The same could be applied to Liberia.

In addition to national security reasons, if Liberia is to be developed and become prosperous, economically, the best way to do it is to encourage Liberians in Liberia and Liberians living abroad with the resources to return home to invest in their country. This is not to suggest that they should be handed contracts without meeting the necessary requirements. With their huge pool of skilled human (in the areas of management and technology) and economic resources, they will not only invest in infrastructure development, they will as well train their employees in diversity, time management, interpersonal skills, computer technology, customer service, and quality service delivery, among other things.

Therefore, if two or three companies are to be allowed to operate in the country, why can’t one of them be majority Liberian owned? The idea of allowing at least one majority Liberian owned company makes sense. In addition to being Liberians, they must show proof that they have acquired the years of experience in telecommunication, management, etc.

Postscript: As we were going to press I heard about another company in the telecom business. The information stated that Dr. Byron Tarr is involved in this endeavor. I was very happy to hear about their efforts. I, however, asked if there were other partners. The informant indicated that Mr. Joe Gbala, the managing director of Telecom is the other partner. I was taken aback by the information. Why can’t Dr. Tarr see the obvious conflict of interest? Why should the Managing Director of Telecom serve as a competitor to telecom?