Sierra Leone: Rapid growth for Mobile Sector

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

“I’ ll text you a Valentine message.” ” Will you buzz me after work, I will call you.” These are common conversational phrases for mobile users in Sierra Leone, a country rated today as the least developed and poorest nation in the African continent according to a recent UNDP index.

Sierra Leone lagged behind in the new cellular phone system because of the war. It happened that the African continent was opening to mobile phone providers at a time when Sierra Leoneans were under a civil war siege. This was to change with the declaration of peace.

While other GSM companies were jittery about the country?s newly announced peace after a protracted and bloody ten year armed conflict, Mobitel, a GSM service provider made the first breakthrough in the Sierra Leonean market when they established their company in war torn Sierra Leone leaking the wounds of war in 2000. This took place at a time when the country?s government owned land phone company Sierratel was only operating in some parts of the city after rebel forces vandalized transmitters and cables.

Today, Sierra Leone has a lot of subscribers and numerous GSM service providers. This number is increasing daily. It is no secret that Sierra Leone has one of the largest mobile network services although said to be the least developed country in the West African Sub-Region.

Although the number of mobile phone subscribers has increased from the hundreds in 2000 to thousands in 2003 in a population of about 4.5 million people ? this still brings about half of the population still without the opportunity of owning or having access to telephones, and this number is usually found mostly in Sierra Leone?s countryside.

In the rural areas of the country, few people have access to a mobile phone. Quite apart from the fact that most people cannot afford it, the main problem is that of poor coverage due to lack of network.

?Sorry the number you have dialed does not exist or the person is our of the coverage area. You can try again later; this is one of the talking points for subscribers in most urban areas or even from abroad trying to reach their rural friends or relatives in the rural areas.

Madam Marie James who resides in Kassama Village in Bo District in Southern Sierra Leone said she dialed several times, trying to call her husband in Freetown but she said there was no network. But when she arrived in Bo, the second largest city in the country, she was able to make her call successfully.

Chernor Ojuku Sesay, Managing editor of the Pool newspaper whose birthplace is Masiaka in northern Sierra Leone said that there is no network to call his parents. Mr. Sesay who resides in Freetown said there is no proper network in that part of the country.

?I have bought a mobile phone for my old parents but I cannot communicate with them because whenever I call there is no network,? he says.

The Government run telecommunication company SIERRATEL does not provide GSM services.? The company only issues licenses to mobile companies operating in the country. Economic analysts believe that giving private companies the opportunity to operate telephones companies in the country will help bolster the private sector. of the country. In line with the government?s goal of providing an environment suitable to investors, the efforts of the cellular networks operators are welcome.

But most of the mobile phone service providers are currently only operating in towns and cities; although rural areas are now contributing increasingly in the development of the country economy.
Since the war ended, government has put in place modalities in rural areas facilities in proving communication development policies. Currently there are community radio networks in most rural areas.

?Rural telecommunication services form another back bone both in the societies and economic development of any country; therefore for a country to develop, quality communication system is needed not only in urban areas but in rural areas as well where most of the inhabitants are living in abject poverty, as stated in one analyst.

The analyst further explained that ?rural telecommunication services play a vital role in local governance and administration by improving access to information at urban and rural levels.?

Currently, there are three mobile companies operating cellular networks in Sierra Leone. These are Mobitel, Celtel and Millicom.

Although Mobitel was the first company that started operating in the country, today; it has been sidelined in a stiff competition for subscribers and is now among the two others.

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Source: AfricaNews (link opens in a new window)