“The much-talked-about CDC government’s so-called ‘pro-poor’ agenda, which is being conceptualized as a means of taking the Liberian people out of poverty and instituting a better economic future, is in fact a smoke-screen to further destitute and suck the life blood of the already suffering masses only to line the pockets of government officials and their millionaire patrons, at the detriment of the already overburdened consuming public,” said old man, Nathaniel Wleh, a cell phone user who walked into the office of the Hot Pepper.
In the wisdom of the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA), effective January 2019 they will be introducing a new price tariff, named and styled, “Price Floor”. In the new 2019 tariff, the LTA proposes to establish a “price floor” for on-net voice and data services. According to the LTA, the new tariff, “price floor”, for on-net voice call will be 1.56 US cents per minute, while the “price-floor” for on-net data is put at 2.18 US cents per megabyte.
The LTA gets its authority from the Telecommunications up-dated version of the 2009 cost model, which was used to establish the interconnection termination rate currently in use among network service providers. According to the LTA, the data is based on actual data provided by service providers, supplemented where needed by benchmark data from similar markets. The model was validated after extensive consultation with service providers and sector stakeholders in 2016, and requires no further consultation.
Unfortunately for the LTA’s so-called consultative effort of 2016, where they claimed that all of the service providers were in one accord to the new tariff regime, the Hot Pepper, which followed the process to the letter, recorded descending opinion from Cellcom, which was in total disagreement with the tariff regime at the time. Cellcom argued that the “floor price” would only provide temporary relief to service providers while increasing the prices of the services for the end users (Liberian people) to bear the cost.
At the time, Cellcom further argued that while telecommunications worldwide was moving forward allowing market forces to determine pricing, the LTA was bent on hurting the consuming public by setting back the gains already made by the service providers by introducing their “price floor” which lowers price flexibility in the telecommunication sector in Liberia.
Unfortunately for the LTA, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf did not approve of the “price floor” at that time, allowing market forces and aggressive marketing to determine the market prices. This issue of “price floor” even rendered a 2017 presidential aspirant unpopular and against the general good of the Liberian people. The aspirant wrote President Sirleaf requesting that she intervened in the sector by forcing Cellcom to cancel its “pro-poor” agenda by providing affordable costs for telecommunications services. This letter was rejected by President Sirleaf and the only thing that made sense and kept the sanity of the Liberian people was maintained by a President who had no “pro-poor” agenda.
This medium’s investigation suggests that President George Manneh Weah, who is the champion of the CDC “pro-poor” agenda, is being used against the interest of the poor Liberian people by members of his inner circle who are bent on enriching themselves and their millionaire patrons against the interest of the already impoverished people in a harsh and declining economy.
On Tuesday, September 17, 2019, the Standing Committee on Post and Telecommunication reported on the mandate given them by the plenary on September 4, 2019 based on the communication of Senator Augustine Chea to investigate the reported discontinuation of the “three days free calls” by the GSM operators, Orange Liberia and Lonestar Cell MTN.
On August 30, 2019, Orange Liberia issued a public notice to its customers that it will end the promotional “three days unlimited calls”, otherwise known as “three days free calls”, as of September 1, 2019 because the LTA, which is the national regulator for the sector, had imposed a new regulatory fee on Mobile voice calls and mobile data services to take effect as of September 1, 2019.
According to the Senate Standing Committee on Post and Telecommunication, this information was greeted by a huge public outcry with the people (the Liberian people) complaining about the discontinuation of the three days free calls, especially at a time they are experiencing economic hardship, and blame the hardship on the government.
According to the Chairman on Post and Telecommunication, hearing about the cancelation of the three days free calls, he wrote the President Pro-Tempore requesting that the LTA Management and other industry actors be invited to appear before Plenary to provide reasons for the LTA’s decision and the resulting discontinuation of the three days free calls. Upon deliberation in Plenary, it was decided that the communication be forwarded to the committee on Post and Telecommunication to conduct a hearing on this matter.
During the hearing, the Board Chairman of the Liberia Telecommunication Authority (LTA), Ivan G. Brown, argued that there was nothing like “three days free calls”; rather, it was actually “three days unlimited calls” for US$1, which was being changed to “three days limited calls” for the same US$1. He said the decision was consultatively taken in order to ensure market stabilization, in order to restore value to the sector and improve the quality of service.
Brown noted that what the two GSM operators were doing was “predatory pricing”—that is charging below the price. According to him, if the LTA sits and do nothing about the situation it would create a monopoly in the sector, preventing new entrants in the market. He told the hearing committee that, even with the new regulatory fee, Liberia has the cheapest telecommunication market or mobile phone calls and mobile data rates in West Africa.
The Minister of Post and Telecommunication, Cllr. Cooper R. Kruah, who was invited by the committee to provide expert opinion on the matter, said the regulation of the telecommunication market was solely within the purview of the LTA. According to him, the telecommunication sector, the world over, is dynamic and, therefore, requires a robust regulatory regime. He said it is normal for a regulator, such as the LTA, to intervene in the market, as in this case, to create stability and restore value.
However, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Orange Liberia, Mamadou Coulibaly, told the hearing that if the amount of data and number of minutes are reduced for the US$1, it would not matter much; according to him, it is the surcharge that will hurt the people the most, because it will increase their (the GSM Operator’s) prices almost two-fold.
The LTA had planned to introduce a surcharge six months after limiting the “three days unlimited calls”, but both Lonestar Cell MTN and Orange Liberia emphasized that it would be harmful to the already dying economy. The GSM operators appealed to the Senate committee to intervene in the interest of the people so that the surcharge would not be imposed.
After conducting the hearings, the Senate Committee on Post and Telecommunication concluded that the new regulatory fees would do four important things for the GSM operators, their customers and the market: increase the operators’ revenue; improve the quality of services for their customers; make the sector competitive; and enable the operators to expand, in order to build new towers to provide network coverage to the many communities in the country that do not have.
However, the committee recommended to the Senate plenary that, for the fact that the GSM operators are themselves opting for an increase in the number of minutes for the “three days limited calls” from 45 to 60, the Senate should take up the matter with the LTA to make a minimal adjustment in the new regulatory fee to accommodate the additional 15 minutes; and that the Senate, as a matter of urgency, should engage the LTA not to impose the contemplated surcharge until the country’s economic conditions are favorable.
“Admittedly, these are difficult times in our country, and it behooves us, as representatives of our people, to do whatever we can to minimize their sufferings. The imposition of a surcharge on telecommunication products, as contemplated by the LTA, in the words of the GSM operators, will be harmful. This must not be allowed,” the Senate’s Standing Committee on Posts and Telecommunications recommended to Senate’s plenary after conducting its hearings and fact-findings.
The committee’s recommendation was approved by the Senate, but the effect of increasing the minutes from 45 to 60 is yet to be implemented and, as it seems, the LTA is still bent on imposing the surcharge, in an ardent disrespect to the Senate’s decision.