Quality Service Delivery in Telephony, GSM and Internet Services
Wednesday 17 September 2014 TANGO Conference Hall 9.30am
Telephony services were introduced in The Gambia since the early days of independence and has been for the most part essentially provided by the national telecommunications company, GAMTEL. There currently exist tens of thousand of fixed phone lines, which have been further increased by the introduction of wireless landlines otherwise called “Jamano”. These have indeed helped to improve communications and consequently facilitating social interaction, commerce and official business of the pubic, private and civil society sectors across the country. The significance of telephony services to the quality of life of a community cannot be over-emphasized. While TANGO is not aware of any study carried out to determine the contribution or the positive impact of telephone services on the economy, health of people, business transactions and other activities of citizens, it is clear that the flow of information within families, and between friends and colleagues have indeed improved and become less expensive. Since the introduction of telephones, individuals could more easily and readily share information on a wide range of issues ranging from personal to official. These serve to open new possibilities and opportunities for people, while at the same time providing them safeguards in their lives. Experts have noted that one of the major drivers of the development of society is the creation of an effective, efficient and affordable communications system. The existence of such a system can tremendously reduce cost in terms of money, time and effort, thereby exponentially increasing benefits from investments we make in various sectors of the economy and our lives.
Telephony and GSM Development
The world of communications has ever been evolving from time immemorial. From the era of talking drums and use of smoke to send messages, the world has moved to using telephone lines with fixed and connecting cables from one point to the other. What has catapulted communications to an all-time new revolutionary phase is the introduction of cellular mobile phone in 1991 after exactly 10 years of previous work to develop a European standard for digital cellular voice telephony. In 1987, 13 European countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding in Copenhagen, Denmark, to develop and deploy a common cellular telephone system across Europe, and EU rules were passed to make Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) a mandatory standard. Phase I of the GSM specifications were published in 1990. The world’s first GSM call was made by the former Finnish Prime Minister Harri Holkeri to Kaarina Suonio (mayor in city of Tampere) on 1st July 1991, on a network built by Telenokia and Siemens and operated by Radiolinja. The following year in 1992, the first short messaging service (SMS or “text message”) message was sent and Vodafone UK and Telecom Finland signed the first international roaming agreement (Source: Wikipedia). With over four billion users today and Africa accounting for over 600 million mobile phones, statistics indicate that the continent remains the fastest growing mobile market in the world. Mobile telephony has been described by Professor Jeffrey Sachs as ‘the single most transformative technology development’ of recent times.
GSM in the Gambia
In the Gambia, GSM communications were introduced formally in 2001 with the creation of Gamcel as a public service provider for cellular mobile communications. A little over a decade later, the country now boasts of three more private companies, Africell, Comium and Qcell. It is obvious that GSM communications are incredibly popular in the Gambia as subscribers to these networks continue to expand. This is largely in response to the many promotional and advertisement drives each of these GSM providers embark upon. With the prospects of winning millions of dalasi, a house, a Tobaski ram, and a Hajj trip or merely to win household items among others, the rate of subscription to these networks continues to increase. However, these marketing and advertisement strategies have also prompted criticisms from other quarters that mobile companies are actually engaged in lottery in the name of product and service promotions, and less on the fulfillment of real corporate social responsibility.
In this 10th Policy Dialogue on “Telephony and GSM Communications”, TANGO raises two fundamental questions. Firstly, is the rate of expansion of GSM communications in the country commensurate with the quality of service customers are entitled? Secondly, are GSM communications affordable, accessible and responding to the development needs of the Gambia?
Quality, Cost, Accessibility and Efficiency
The population of The Gambia is approximately two million with a land size of 11 thousand square kilometers. The country is a largely flat terrain with limited adverse weather conditions, which cannot severely affect connectivity. Based on the geography of the country, it is expected that mobile communications would be greatly accessible wherever one is, be of the highest quality and provide the most reasonable, affordable and efficient service. However, users of mobile phones experience incredibly poor network service even within the Greater Banjul Area. For all the networks, contrary to their advertisements, there are vast areas of the country in which connectivity is almost non-existent or is gotten at extreme personal inconvenience. Furthermore, despite the existence of PURA as the accountability mechanism for GSM services among others, GSM termination costs within a network and across networks remains largely expensive. This is attested to by the fact that users mostly refuse to call other networks simply because of the fast consuming nature of the facility. A study conducted in 2011 on mobile phone users in the Gambia by former Minister of Communications Fatim Badgie for her Manchester University MSc in ICTs for Development, (http://ict4dblog.wordpress.com/2011/01/30/mobile-phone-use-in-west-africa-gambian-statistics/) considered a number of issues such as impact and benefits. On the issue of availability, the study stated that,
“Roughly 60% of users said they always had a signal and that services were available even in “inconvenient” locations (though of course Gambia is a small country). Only 30% reported the mobile was always effective for communication and roughly one third reported they felt mobile use had become a burden to them – mostly financially but also socially or personally. For the 55% of users who wanted improvements, these almost all related to getting 100% network coverage in the country, or wanting cheaper prices.”
Connected to telephony and GSM communications is the provision of Internet services, which is another major contributor to national development. According to the Internet World Stats (www.internetworldstats.com), the number of Internet users in the Gambia was only 4000 in 2000. But this has increased exponentially to over 200 thousand Internet users by 2012, representing 10% of the population. In this number are about 60 thousand Facebook users. This is indicative of the fast rate at which the use of internet is moving in all aspects of our socio-economic and political life, lending credence to observations that telecommunications is the fastest growing industry in any African country.
Without efficient, affordable and accessible Internet services, neither professionals nor businesses in the public, private and civil society sectors can find it easy to function efficiently. This is because a large amount, if not all, of modern office work and business transactions in the Gambia, as it is in the rest of the world, are now carried online. Internet services have now effectively removed hard cash from people’s hands, enabled the purchase and delivery of goods without being present at the shop, while at the same time Internet has served to ensure effective management, enhanced transparency and accountability in governance and development institutions and processes. Much more, the Internet has allowed, for example, not only the quick exchange of information or messages through e-mails but also enriched the intellectual development of people who use the Internet for research and other educational purposes.
TANGO agrees with expert opinions that have noted that while in the past the mobile phone was considered a luxury, today this gadget is a necessity that holds unlimited opportunities for the people. According to the Fatim Badgie study,
“78% felt they benefited from having a mobile particularly due to low cost of calls. 31% felt having a mobile helped them to make or get money, for example through calls from customers to go and collect money owing or, more often, calling family/friends for money (“money calls”). 58% thus felt they had come to depend on their mobile, and 78% said they could not see themselves living without one.”
Thus the development of telephony services in the country must be a top priority of the government and all other stakeholders. These include the need to reduce cost, ensure efficiency, improve the infrastructure and invest more in the overall operations and functioning of the system. In 2013 the Gambia became one of the countries in the ACE Project, which raised expectations that ICT efficiency will greatly improve in the country. While this project is in its infancy, TANGO seems to get the impression from industry actors that indeed the country is on the road to better GSM and Internet services sooner than later.
It is important to highlight that service delivery is also a human rights issue. As consumers, individuals have a right to high quality goods and services that commensurate the value of their money. Not just that, but also consumers have a right to information from service providers in regards to all aspects of their goods and services which is necessary to enable consumers make the right choices. The efficient and timely provision of services and the manner in which service providers attend to the needs and concerns of consumers continue to be major challenges in many sectors in the Gambia. Consumers deserve respect, courtesy and truth in their demand for services at all levels. Furthermore, the health of consumers and other risks that could emanate from goods and services must be given the highest attention.
TANGO Policy Dialogue Series
With support from UNDP Gambia, TANGO will convene its 10th Policy Dialogue on Telephony, GSM and Internet Services on Wednesday 17 September 2014 at TANGO Conference Hall at 9.30am sharp (No Gambian Time). The Policy Dialogue will bring together operators in the telephony and GSM sectors, policy makers, regulators, consumer advocacy groups and other stakeholders such as the media, lawmakers, business operators, political parties, religious and traditional leaders, academia and the wider civil society. The purpose of the forum is to interrogate the business of telephony services in the country in relation to issues of quality, access, cost, efficiency, affordability and infrastructure among others. The forum will seek to highlight the importance of ICT in our lives, the rights of consumers, the responsibilities of providers and the role of regulators and policy makers. It will also look at the role of government in ensuring that the right infrastructure and an enabling legal and policy environment are in place so that telephony and ICT in general becomes not only an instrumental driver of national development, but Gambians enjoy the best of services and products in this sector.
In light of this, a heavyweight line-up of presenters has been identified to generate the discussions. The Policy Dialogue will be moderated by Lamin Jabbie, a telecommunications law expert with longstanding experience in local and international telephony and ICT issues.
1. The keynote address will be delivered by the Legal Adviser of the Consumer Protection Association of the Gambia, Mr. Salieu Taal. He is a renowned actor in the industry in his own right and a strong voice for human rights, quality and efficiency in all aspects of life. He will deliver a statement on “Value for Money and Consumers Rights in Service Delivery.”
2. A statement on the prospects and challenges for an enabling policy and institutional frameworks for the development of telephony services in the Gambia by,
a. The Minister of Trade and Industry, and Regional Integration
b. The Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs
3. Statement by the Minister of Communications and Information and Communication Technology on the availability and challenges for quality and robust infrastructure for ICT services.
The discussants in the forum are:
1. Managing Director of PURA on Competition, Accessibility, Affordability and Safety in Telephony and ICT services: Issues, Prospects, Challenges and Way Forward;
2. Cost, Coverage, Efficiency and Consumer Rights in Telephony/GSM and Internet Services – Challenges and Prospects:
About TANGO Policy Dialogue Series
The TANGO Policy Dialogues is a bi-monthly awareness creation and advocacy forum aimed at bringing together policy and decision makers, development workers, researchers and the general public to discuss key pertinent national development issues. It forms an integral and central agenda in TANGO’s drive to empower and encourage the participation of CSOs in public policy processes aimed at ensuring transparency, accountability, responsiveness and a results-based development process.