New Twist in Interconnection Dispute between Uganda Telecom and Sudanese Gemtel

Telecoms

The controversial interconnection agreement between Uganda Telecom and Southern Sudan's Gemtel phone company took a new twist last week when it emerged that the two have quietly installed a satellite dish for the latter at one of Uganda's most sensitive communications facilities.

The news came a few days after a committee of Uganda's parliament asked Interpol to investigate the Southern Sudan company, which has an irregular interconnection agreement with UTL under which its subscribers use Uganda's international gateway prefix, 256, as this newspaper revealed last month.

The East African has now learnt that Gemtel have illegally set up a satellite dish at the Mpoma international gateway and satellite earth station, a sensitive government-owned facility in Mukono district, 21 kilometres from Kampala city. The six-metre satellite dish at Mpoma, which engineers have recently upgraded to handle larger volumes, is dedicated to handling all Internet and voice traffic from any part of the world to Southern Sudan, and vice versa.

Now the Uganda Communications Commission, which regulates the telecoms sector in the country, says that the installation could be illegal. Fred Otunnu, a UCC spokesperson said: "To set up a satellite dish, the procedure requires a company to register locally, obtain a public service provider license and authorisation to use a VSAT." Gemtel has not done any of this, and Kampala officials involved in the transaction insist that the company is purely from Southern Sudan with no footprint in Uganda.

Last week, a committee in Uganda's parliament asked Interpol to investigate Gemtel after Works and Transport Minister John Nasasira appeared before it and revealed that the Ugandan government does not have any information about the company's directors. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) allows a sovereign state to lend another its international code under certain circumstances such as disasters, but only temporarily.

UTL company secretary Donald Nyakairu confirmed to The EastAfrican that the new satellite dish at Mpoma satellite earth station belongs to Gemtel. "Gemtel is only co-locating its equipment needed for interconnecting with us, which is okay," he said.

He added: "We were informed by the government that it was okay to give them our line. We have an interconnection agreement with them that will change as soon as the company gets its own international code."

Financial details of the agreement have been scanty; initial reports indicated that Gemtel, whose chairman is listed as Augustus Caesar Mulenga, a Ugandan, was paying UTL US$50,000 a month in interconnection fees. This figure appears to have risen, with The East African learning last week that Gemtel paid UTL US$75,000 in April and US$102,000 in June this year in interconnection settlements.

Gemtel is reported to have more than 12,000 subscribers, has already put up base stations in Juba, Bor, Torit, Yabio and Wau. Construction of base stations is also going on in Rumbek, Aweil, Kwajok, Malakal and Bentiu. It is building a microwave link from Koboko in Uganda through Kenya to connect Yei and Juba in Southern Sudan.

(Source: East African)