SIERRA LEONE MOBILE MARKET GEARS UP FOR COMPETITION

Telecoms

Wireless operator Comium SL has contracted US vendor Harris Corporation for the supply of digital microwave links for its start-up GSM network in Sierra Leone. Comium SL is the fourth GSM operator to be licensed in the country, receiving its concession in May 2004, though it has yet to confirm a rollout schedule for its commercial services.

Harris has previously supplied infrastructure to Comium’s operations in the Middle East and Africa. The Beirut-based group has corporate communications businesses in Saudi Arabia (Third Dimension Technology) and Iraq (Comium Services), and mobile and fixed line providers in Iran and Karabakh (Telecommunication Kish and Karabakh Telecom), as well as stakes in a number of companies in its domestic Lebanese market, including ISP TerraNet. Comium also recently acquired a cellular licence in Liberia and has contracted Harris for the build out of its GSM network in the country, where it will launch later in the year in competition to monopoly operator Lonestar.

By the time of Comium SL’s launch in Sierra Leone, there will be three cellcos competing in one of the world’s most underdeveloped wireless markets. Damage to infrastructure during the civil war means fixed line connections are simply not available in many areas, leaving cellular services as the only option for many Sierra Leoneans, and whilst high prices have thus far hindered take-up, new entrants to the market are expected to send prices tumbling and subscriber numbers soaring. The first company to launch cellular services in Sierra Leone was Celtel, which made its debut in September 2000. Its monopoly lasted only until May the following year, when the local subsidiary of international mobile operator Millicom launched its own GSM network. A third licence was awarded to Lebanese company Lintel in July 2002, though it has taken the operator close to three years to build out its network. The Lebanese-owned firm, which will brand its services Africell, acquired its concession for USD250,000 in July 2002 and expects to introduce its first services in the first half of 2005.

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