Uganda’s MTN, UTL in Billing Disputes Over Calls to Sudan

Telecoms

MTN Uganda and rivals Uganda Telecom are locked in a bruising billing battle over telephone calls made to and from the Southern Sudan phone company, Gemtel. At the heart of the dispute, The EastAfrican has learnt, is a controversial deal that UTL struck with Gemtel allowing the Sudanese company to use Uganda's international dialling code, +256, to enable its customers make international calls while it sorted out access to Sudan's international gateway with the government in Khartoum.

UTL officials say that since Gemtel is located outside Uganda, calls to the network from other networks, such as MTN, are international calls that should be billed as such. "The way the traffic is routed, although the code is +256, it is via satellite and is therefore an international call," Donald Nyakairu, UTL company secretary, told The EastAfrican. "We are charging the costs of terminating the call in Sudan."

However, MTN chief commercial officer Erik Van Veen said that UTL's position was "illegal" according to International Telecommunications Union rules and that calls to the Gemtel network should be charged local rates as long as the prefix is Ugandan. "Think of it from a customer's position," Van Veen said. "If they call a number with a +256 prefix, how would they know that it is an international call?"

The EastAfrican has learnt that UTL blocked MTN calls to Gemtel earlier this year as the billing dispute worsened. Industry sources say the blockade was lifted after a furious MTN wrote to UTL protesting the move. The matter was then reported to the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), the industry regulator, which has since failed to achieve a breakthrough.

"The UCC have avoided the issue," Van Veen told The EastAfrican. "We wrote to them and asked them to intervene; we got a weak response to the effect that we must try to resolve it. "UCC have to date not resolved it," he added. "We are surprised and asking why they have not stepped in a dispute that is clearly within their ambit. It is a very clear-cut case."

UCC officials declined to comment. UCC corporate affairs officer Fred Otunnu promised to give a response to The EastAfrican, but failed to do so despite several reminders. The UTL-Gemtel arrangement sparked controversy early this year when parliament demanded an investigation into the terms of the deal. It emerged at the time that the deal had been struck with the full knowledge and backing of the Ugandan government and that of the Government of Southern Sudan, and that Gemtel - whose chairman is listed as Augustus Caesar Mulenga, a Ugandan - was paying UTL $50,000 a month for the dialling code.

Gemtel, whose operations are based in Yei in Southern Sudan, is reported to have about 12,000 mobile phone customers. Appearing before a parliamentary committee on January 29, UCC executive director Patrick Masambu said his organisation was responsible for licensing telecommunications operators in the country, not for monitoring the downstream operations of their dealers.

"The Uganda Communications Commission is not under any obligation to know UTL's dealers outside Uganda," Masambu said. "Gemtel is a foreign company."

The Libya African Portfolio owns 69 per cent of UTL while the government of Uganda owns 31 per cent.

Although MPs called for an investigation into the UTL-Gemtel agreement, none has been carried out so far. However, MP Johnson Malinga, the vice chairman of the parliamentary state enterprises committee, told The EastAfrican last week that parliament plans to start the probe later in the year.

"The concern of the committee is that Gemtel uses Uganda's dialling prefix," said Mr Malinga. "How is Uganda as a country benefiting from this deal? Where is the security of Uganda if other countries are using our country code?" UTL's Mr Nyakairu told The EastAfrican last week that ITU rules allowed countries to lend their dialling codes to others under certain circumstances.

"Parliament just wanted to understand what arrangement we had with Gemtel, which is an interconnection agreement," Nyakairu said. "This is an arrangement between the government of Uganda and the Government of Southern Sudan on the use of the +256 code. You should look at the sensitivity of our country," Nyakairu added. "The government's main interest in this matter is to try and help Southern Sudan to communicate with the rest of the world."

(Source: East African)