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Controversy hovers over Sierra Leone Cable Limited unbundling

Sierra Leone Cable Limited (SALCAB) is set to be unbundled into a national digital institutional framework, incorporating a national advisory council on digital development to be led by the Presidency.

SALCAB, a special purpose vehicle company established to support the country’s telecommunications and enhance access to communications, has been in operation for eight years.

Minister of Information and Communications, Mohamed Swarray said unbundling will effectively adapt the company to a public-private partnership model, as per originally agreed to terms of a US$30-million World Bank loan. The loan was intended to support the landing of the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) cable in 2012 - and lift Sierra Leone from the abyss as West Africa’s most expensive country for voice and data communication.

Acting Director of ICT at the Ministry, Mohammed Jalloh, said SALCAB is currently operating assets of both the ACE cable and the National Fibre Backbone (NFB) at less than 30% and 0.05% of their capacities respectively, with no incentives to push for optimum performance.

“Less than 0.05% of the US$33-million NFB infrastructure has been utilised since it was completed in 2014,” said Jalloh. “Together aggregate losses from expenditure and ‘lack–of-use’ is estimated at over US$4-million. With adequate management attention, NFB can generate revenues of up to US$500,000 every month compared to about US$20,000 being realised.”

Fibre optic under-utilised

SALCAB is reportedly losing revenue through expenses and from MNOs that currently spend up to US$700,000 monthly on transmission only, a cost that could be halved if NFB assets are effectively utilised, according to Jalloh.

Whereas, efficient management could see NFB cash flows pay-off ECOWAN and Huawei loans in 10-12 years while the proposed new NFB management increases the pace of internet access to reach 50% of the country in three- to-five years from the current 17%.

Jalloh added that the reform could also improve the current weak cyber security landscape at the ACE cable landing site and include ‘Deep Packet Inspections’ of IP transit to its portfolio; support ongoing e-Governance programmes to enable transformation from manual paper-based to online system; and ensure a rationalised market landscape with informed regulatory guidelines to make the monopoly infrastructure operator attractive to private sector investment.

MP resignation

The ministry’s effort to convince the parliament of the merits of accepting the proposal took a hit when Swarray was quizzed on an apparent conflict between his claim that SALCAB has not been doing well over the years and that of President Maada Bio's who told parliamentarians in May that the company is doing well.

The altercation led to the Chairman of the Sierra Leone Parliamentary Committee on Transparency and Accountability, Tawa Conteh, resigning his position - though some parliamentarians criticized the minister’s refusal to shed light on true happenings with SALCAB.

Chairman of SALCAB’s Board of Directors, Sorie Fofana, who supports the unbundling but is against the sale or privatisation of the company, has also come out to allay fears of potential job loss at the company if the proposed unbundling goes ahead.

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