Monday, August 27, 2007

Who Benefits From Burgeoning Mobile Business

With the coming of Mobile phones in Sierra Leone, the dictionary of most Sierra Leoneans has been widening to accommodate new words to match that era of new information and communication technologies.

It has therefore become no surprise to hear stark 'illiterate' Sierra Leoneans spewing out words like 'Top-Up', 'SIM Card', 'Pin Code' and other thousand-and-one jargons associated with the cell phone craze.

The coming of mobile phone companies into the country almost five years ago brought about changes with the speed of ?a hare?. Business transactions nowadays are conclude in a matter of minutes.

According to records from the five existing mobile companies of Celtel, Comium, Africell, Datatel and Tigo, subscribers continue to increase on a daily basis.

Notwithstanding the eagerness of people to own a cell phone, coupled with the mushrooming of numerous Internet Cafes and 'Telecentres' in the major towns nationwide, less than a quarter of the population of more than four million do not have access to a phone nor have access to the Internet.

Moreover, coverage of such areas is still very poor as a result warnings from mobile operators that "Sorry the number you have dialed cannot be reached or out of the coverage area. Try again later", are very common.

"This is one of the commonest problems for subscribers in most remote areas who want to reach their friends and relatives in bigger towns", said Abu Kanu who works in the capital Freetown but hails from the rural village of Wuri-bana, northern -Sierra Leone.

According to The Sierra Leone Telecommunications Company, SIERRATEL, the role of government in this is to make sure that operators do their business in a well regulated environment "In line with the government's goal of providing an enabling environment for investors," said a senior executive officer of the company.

According to the National Telecommunications Commission (NatCom), which is responsible for registering and issuing out licenses to telecommunications companies, it welcomes any other telecommunication company to join the current five cell phone companies to increase competition.

It could be recalled that after the country?s 11-year civil conflicts, mobile phone companies operating at the moment expressed their success stories after opening doors to mobile phone operations in 2000.

Today, the country has a lot of subscribers and their numbers are increasing on a daily basis. It is no secret that, Sierra Leone has one of the largest mobile phone network operations among the least developed countries in Africa.

The problems of poor phone signals and reception still affect people in few rural areas adversely. In bigger towns however, the majority of school going children will easily tell you, Where is your mobile? 'I'll buzz you' Or Call me.

The market has become so large that from chief executives, business women, footballers, school children, house wives, etc, would want to own a mobile phone to communicate or facilitate their operations or transactions.

The Sierra Leone media in the past will toil long distances to cross check information with journalists but now, they find it easy in cross checking information from one town to the other or even abroad when a major scoop comes up or a breaking story due to the availability of mobile phones.

The list of users go on and on with each telling his or her own story, while mobile companies make away with millions of Leones profits generated out of the sale of top-cards.

Since the end of the civil war in 2002, the government of Sierra Leone has made significant progress in addressing rural telecommunications ? however there are still major challenges.

"Rural telecommunication services forms another backbone both in the socio- economic development of any country.....", says NatCom Chairman, Alhaji Kanji Daramy.

Mr. Amara Kamara, a Communication expert explained to HANA in that "telecommunication services play a vital role in promoting good governance and administration by improving access to information, communication and technology in urban and rural areas". Currently, there are five mobile companies operating cellular networks in Sierra Leone. They are Celtel, Tigo, Africell, Comium and Datatel.

Dr. Prince Alex Harding, former Minister of Transports and Communication said recently that government is encouraging investors not to focus their attention in urban areas only but also to expand their businesses to some parts of the rural areas.

"The government is trying all out to encourage companies to invest in the rural areas and as such, mobile companies too will deem it necessary to expand their network coverage to other parts of the country", he said.

The country is divided into four provisional headquarters and twelve (12) districts. The majority of the districts are situated in remote villages and have always complained of poor network conditions.

Mobile companies in the country blame Sierratel for poor services by not allowing mobile phone operators to make use of satellites for their network coverage.

A spokesman of a leading mobile company explained that mobile operators want Sierratel to give them the go ahead. "We want the poor rural people to enjoy the facilities", the official said.

Alpha Sesay, Managing Director of Sierratel says plans are underway to expand communications services to the entire country, and to make rural areas accessible to mobile phone services.

"Right now, investors are not considering the needs of the poor, thinking that their business would not achieve profits", says a village teacher in Masimera, Northern Sierra Leone.

There are several telephone booths all over the country. Celtel is operating public telephone booths and plans are underway to invest in rural areas by reducing telephone rates for poor areas.

The major problem however is the poor electricity supply to the whole country the result is that most mobile users make use of generators to charge their mobile phones.

But "Generally speaking the people of Sierra Leone especially in the capital city of Freetown, the diamond rich town of Kono, Eastern Sierra Leone and other parts of the country are crazy for mobile phones."

allAfrica.com: Sierra Leone: Who Benefits From Burgeoning Mobile Business (Page 1 of 2)