Gambia special – new telecoms bill is the starter’s gun for liberalisation

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Gambia is a small country (1.5 million population) that stretches either side of a river of the same name, barely 50 miles wide. But momentous changes are afoot in the ICT sector as there will soon be a new Telecoms Act that will signal the end of incumbent Gamtel’s monopoly and open up the market. Russell Southwood looks at what’s happening in the ICT sector and how things will change.

Two things have come together in Gambia which signal an opening of the market. The Telecoms Bill goes before Parliament in the forthcoming parliamentary session. The relatively recently appointed Secretary of State, Department of State for Information, Communication and Technology, Neneh Macdouall-Gaye assured us on a recent visit that it will be passed by the end of March 2006.

The new independent regulator, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) has advertised for a new CEO and will be empowered to act by the new Bill.

The new Telecoms Bill is one of two subsidiary acts, the other covering utilities. The overall Act sets up the new regulator. The Telecoms Bill has the following elements:

- It will outline guidelines for spectrum management, including efficient allocation, monitoring and surveillance.

- It addresses interconnection issues, making PURA the arbitrator of disputes and addresses tariff issues for monopoly service providers like Gamtel, granting PURA the power to regulate prices. At present, interconnect is a commercial arrangement between operators.

- The setting up of Universal Access Fund based on operators’ contributions and administered by PURA. It will tender universal service contracts to all operators on a “least subsidy” basis.

- It will empower the regulator to issue guidelines for VoIP.

- It will set out the licensing structure: procedures and types of licensing.

The new regulatory regime set to be the legal framework is ‘technology-neutral’ with licensing based on services rather than types of technologies. On interconnect, the regulator is likely to try and resolve the current unhappy situation by looking at a cost-based approached. It will also put in place a condition that allows all operators to interconnect and define “dominant market power”. There is also a Competition Bill but this has not yet been passed.

It will also seek to address practical issues such as ensuring that the two mobile networks are able to exchange SMS messages: currently incumbent-owned Gamcel is unable to do so.

Previously all licensing decisions were taken by Government but with PURA in place, application processes will become more transparent and decisions being under greater scrutiny. In advance of PURA being legally empowered, two significant licensing decisions have already been taken. A third mobile operator – West Coast Investment – has been granted a licence to operate. It is led by local businessman Amadou Samba with Nigerian backing. Almost as significantly a second international gateway licence has been given to Gamsat which will act as a carriers’ carrier, also owned by Amadou Samba. And one of the first issues for the regulator will be whether more gateway licences should be issued.

Once the Bill passes into law, it will offer both local and international investors the opportunity to put money into the sector in a way that was previously very limited by the existence of the monopoly. And as Papa Njie of Unique Solutions observed:”The ICT private sector has been gearing themselves up for the opportunities presented by liberalisation. All the dreams, ambitions and investment are there. We all know what we could be doing and it should become possible when the new Telecoms Bill is passed. It will create new opportunities for the ICT players and give better prices and service to the consumer.”

But what of the incumbent? Will it be privatised? This depends on the attitude of the Government, the President and to some lesser extent public attitudes. Gambians are very nationalistic about Gamtel and do not want to see the “national” treasure sold off. Currently it wraps itself in the national interest and cross-subsidises various forms of social provision: this will not be possible in a competitive market with a level playing field. It is currently short of capital to invest in network renewal and new international bandwidth. The last network overhaul was paid for by France and installed by Alcatel.

And as usual Gamtel’s management and workers not keen on a sell-off. But as the saying goes, turkeys very rarely vote for Christmas. Gamtel has 1,000 employees running 35,000 lines whereas its own mobile subsidiary Gamcell has only 125 employees to connect 160,000 customers. The new jobs are to be found in the private sector: the country’s largest ISP QuantumNet has 97 employees, all of whom have an excellent social package.

Presently Gamtel is part of a World Bank agreed programme on divestiture and the terms of reference have been agreed to look at how best to tackle it. The political circle of objections to privatisation may well be squared by offering everything (the mobile operation, the ISP, etc) for sale except the network infrastructure for which an external strategic partner will be sought.

Gamtel has introduced CDMA fixed wireless on to its network, using Huawei, Aircom and Omniacom. It has been a very popular offer but Gamtel is having to put the brake on expansion because of the shortage of international bandwidth. Gamtel has two sources of international bandwidth: over SAT3 via Sonatel in neighbouring Senegal (10-13 meg) or through satellite carriers including Teleglobe(around 2 meg).

The “pinch-point” is a short microwave transmission link between Gambia and Senegal. So although for example QuantumNet buys 2 megabytes per month (for US$3000 mbps per month) the shared bandwidth is rarely managed in such a way that this is what it actually gets. Fibre exists between Gambia and Senegal and Gamtel has been talking about “lighting it” for over a year but it is not yet in place.

Something serious will have to be done about this problem as the Government is shortly to host an AU Summit and the one-off bandwidth required has been calculated at 45 mbps. The private sector ISPs are concerned that all this business will simply go to the incumbent and that there will be no competitive pricing or redundancy.

Redundancy is a real issue as all of the country’s financial institutions have put their business with private ISP QuantumNet because the incumbent ISP was unable to offer sufficiently high levels of “up-time” on a consistent basis. With competitive pricing and alternative international gateway’s, QuantumNet’s Managing Director Muhammed Jah believes that bandwidth prices will come down to US1000 per mbps per month.