They made phone calls, then they refused to pay. A Shs12 billion swindle by subscribers in Celtel’s first three years of operation pushed the firm to the brink, it has been revealed."We incurred $6 million simply because in the first three years we did not have prepaid billing," David Sserunjogi, Celtel company secretary, said last Friday.

"When our competitors came, they had prepaid billing. So they could afford to avoid all the bad debts," Sserunjogi said.Both MTN and Uganda Telecom started their mobile services after Celtel but quickly surpassed Celtel’s subscriber base.

Saying that its competitors preferred an affordable service even if it meant quality was compromised, Sserunjogi said that the principle of its parent company had been to have fewer subscribers with a higher quality service. Vodafone was Celtel’s parent company.

But Kiboro said: "Perhaps we could live with a little bit of less quality. I would rather have a telephone that works 50 percent of the time than no telephone at all. I think this guy read the market well."

Sserunjogi said that a corporate turnaround started a year ago has achieved 50 percent of what it intended to,in terms of dropping the brand’s snobbish image. Subscribers, he added, have tripled. He would not say from what number.

The firm, he added, was also tied down by regulatory authorities’ reluctance to give them an international licence similar to that held by their competitors.

The Monitor