fACE off: operators, government clash over submarine cable access

10 Jan 2014

Telecoms service providers in Sierra Leone are reportedly threatening to seek international arbitration, in relation to the government’s threats to shut them down, following allegations that all telcos with a stake in Sierra Leone Cable Limited (SALCAB) – which manages the country’s connection to the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine cable system – have failed to meet a 16 December 2013 deadline to address some of their financial obligations. PC Advisor reports that Mohammed Sheriff, the managing director of SALCAB, has accused AFcom, LimeLine and Africell Sierra Leone of using SALCAB’s service for free since its introduction in mid-2013, ignoring the requirement to pay USD10,000 per month. Further, the executive said that the SALCAB paid USD500,000 to the ACE consortium on behalf of the service providers, and outstanding fees of USD184,000 are still liable to the state-owned business entity. In addition, Sheriff pointed out that the SALCAB charges USD200 for 1MB, far less than the USD2,000 per 1MB internet service providers (ISPs) were paying for satellite transmission.

For their part, AFcom, LimeLine and Africell have denied the allegations and in turn have accused the government of invalidating previous agreements signed with former Minister of Communications, Ibrahim Kargbo. The initial agreements reportedly called for the operators to appoint members of SALCAB’s board of directors, who would take over the responsibility of managing the ACE landing station in Sierra Leone, including the payment of USD1 million for operational costs between January and July 2013. However, telcos said that when current ICT Minister Alpha Kanu assumed the post he ‘informed service providers that they were no longer shareholders in SALCAB, removed them from SALCAB’s board and took over a bank account containing about USD700,000 of service provider funds.’ The joint statement also said: ‘The managing director of SALCAB has sent out demands for payment to each operator of USD31,000 per month for each STM-1. Under the signed agreements, each operator owns 5xSTM-1 and with a planned upgrade next year which will increase it to nearly 10xSTM-1 … clearly, the operators have no way of absorbing these exorbitant increases and the only result is that the internet would be more expensive for the people of Sierra Leone.’ Further, the telcos have complained that none of the network providers in the country have paid the new charges, yet the ministry has chosen to disconnect only a handful.

Deputy Information Minister Theo Nicol has also released a statement pointing out that the initial agreement was suspended as the ICT minister had determined a need to change SALCAB to a profit-making entity. Nicol said that telecoms service providers were getting the service almost for free while the government was paying a huge sum to the ACE consortium. Further, the executive revealed that the plan is close to getting cabinet approval. However, Nicol also refuted claims made by ISPs and stated that six of the nine ISPs using the ACE systems have paid the charges.

According to TeleGeography’s GlobalComms Database, on 5 June 2010 the Sierra Leonean government signed the ACE Construction and Maintenance Agreement (CMA) via its wholly-owned newly established company SALCAB. In February 2013 the government’s share in SALCAB was diverged to a 51/49 PPP; a total of nine broadband and mobile service providers were revealed as in possession of a stake in the consortium at the time, namely Sierratel, Airtel, Africell, Comium, AFcom, LimeLine, IPtel, NextGen, TelTak and SALCAB itself.