As NATCOM improves on digital penetration in three years

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New Direction Scores Big in Telecoms

By Joseph S. Margai, Strategic Communications Coordinator

NATCOM’s Director General, Daniel Bobson Kaitibi

President Julius Maada Bio’s three years in office has seen a significant improvement in the telecommunications sector, with digital penetration being the prime focus.

Daniel Bobson Kaitibi, National Telecommunications Commission’s (NATCOM) Director General, has strongly supported President Bio’s vision of improving digital penetration in Sierra Leone. 

Kaitibi’s leadership style has boosted staff morale and significantly led to the improvements that NATCOM has made in the last three years.

Nicknamed the ‘people’s Director General’, Kaitibi has ensured that NATCOM’s presence is felt across the country, with offices being established in all the five regions of Sierra Leone. 

He has also restored NATCOM’s reputation in the global community by paying all the arrears that the Commission once owed to its international regulation’s bodies.

Improving digital penetration

NATCOM, which came into existence as a result of the Telecommunications Act of 2006 and charged with the responsibility of regulating the operations of telecommunications and ICT service providers in the country, has made tremendous strides in digital penetration.

NATCOM has urged mobile network operators (MNOs) and internet service providers (ISPs) to increase connectivity throughout the country, including remote and underserved areas.

This action has led to noticeable improvement in network coverage for telecommunications service delivery.

NATCOM’s regulatory role is consistent and predictable so as to achieve Cluster 3.5 of the Medium-Term National Development Plan (MTNDP), which talks about the greater efficiency in connectivity service delivery because of the digital divide.

The upgrading of MNOs’ sites from 2G to 3G and 4G cells has further supported the digital penetration from under 10% previously to about 18% currently, with all four Mobile Networks now having 4G capability, thus meeting the educational, social and medical needs of users, in addition to basic communication requirements.

For instance, in 2020, the four MNOs operating in Sierra Leone increased their network coverage significantly.

Africell had 75% network coverage in the country, Orange had 80% coverage, QCell had 60% coverage and Sierratel had 15% network coverage across the country.

Regulations

With support from the supervisory ministry-the Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC)-NATCOM was able to develop and had Parliament approved five new Regulations in December 2020.

The new Regulations, which are now in force, include:

Telecommunications Licensing Regulations 2020

Electronic Communications Equipment Type Approval Regulations 2020

Radio Frequency Spectrum Regulations 2020

Telecommunications Quality of Service Regulations 2020

Subscriber Identification Registration Regulations 2020

Licenses

NATCOM has embarked on regular changes with unified licenses issued to accommodate new service providers, leading to new entrants and services for the telecoms market in the country.

The new Licensing Regulations have further enhanced the introduction of new revenue streams in the sector from individual or class licenses for operators, to infrastructure or service-based licenses, Value Added Service Providers (VASPs), Special Numbering Resources users, etc.

For instance, in 2020, 13 new FM stations and three new TV stations were licensed.

International Gateway Monitoring System (IGMS)

The fraud management feature of the International Gateway Monitoring System (IGMS) has led to many detections of SIMBOX numbers which were immediately blocked by the MNOs to discourage revenue loss through the Gateway Bypass of fraudsters.

International standing

Before 2018, NATCOM was unable and unwilling to honor its obligations to International Telecommunications Regulatory bodies including the following institutions:

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU)

The West Africa Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (WATRA).

The Commonwealth Telecommunication Union (CTO)

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)

However, in the last three years, NATCOM’s management has been able to pay its dues to these organizations and benefit from the Regulations, advice and training opportunities that come with being a registered paid-up member.

Free roaming initiative

NATCOM spearheaded the inclusion of Sierra Leone in December 2019 in the free roaming initiative under the Abidjan Protocol, as agreed by the ECOWAS’ MIC ministers.

With NATCOM’s supervision, two major MNOs in the Sierra Leone were able to implement the Abidjan Protocol with seven other ECOWAS member states.

Government revived UADF

Under the supervision of the Ministry of Information and Communications, and being a subset of NATCOM, the Universal Access Development Fund (UADF) has been recently revived to perform its main function of collecting revenue from service providers and creating infrastructure access to remote and underserved areas in the country.

UADF has also been able to support MNOs in achieving countrywide telecommunications network coverage and digital penetration.

Terrestrial fiber backbone

In the past three years, there has been a steady acceleration in the upgrading of the existing terrestrial fiber backbone by the Sierra Leone Cable Limited’s (SALCAB) landing station.

With support from MIC, fiber has been extended to other major towns and cities across the country, especially from Freetown to Gbalamuya on the Guinea border and Gendema on the Liberia border.

Previously unconnected major towns like Pujehun, Moyamba, Kailahun, Koinadugu and Bonthe are now being connected in the second phase of the terrestrial fiber backbone expansion.

These regions would also benefit from fiber internet to schools and other educational institutions, health centers, district and city councils and the general populace.

NATCOM improves on the quality-of-service delivery and complaints procedure

The retention of the services of a Quality-of-Service vendor that analyses the Call Data Records (CDRs) and Cell Site Statistics has highlighted areas of improvement for MNOs to ensure better service delivery for their customers.

A HelpDesk has been revamped for MNO’s subscribers that guarantees the speedy resolution of their complaints across the country.

NATCOM harmonizes tariffs for telecoms services

The Telecommunications Act 2006 (as amended) and subsequent Regulations mandate the establishment of fair and harmonised tariffs for services offered by MNOs and ISPs, for the protection of investments and consumer interests.

As such, in 2019 a Tariff Cap and Floor price was set for all MNOs to adhere to, in contrast to the previous situation when there was a tariff war with the dominant networks suppressing competition from the smaller players.

NATCOM harmonizes national numbering plan

The National Numbering Plan (NNP) was previously not well harmonized but in recent times, NATCOM, with the aid of the Act and new Regulations and Guidelines has achieved harmony in the assignment and monitoring of usage of National Numbering Resources including Special Number Resources (SNRs) or Short Codes for better telecommunications service implementation and delivery.

NATCOM improves Fintech operations (Mobile Money Services)

Mobile Money Operations (MMO) hosted by MNOs have been steadily increasing in the past three years, with Digital Financial Services (DFS) now available at MNO offices and Agent/Sub-Agent locations throughout the country, contributing to a higher Fintech penetration.

MMO integration with traditional Financial Service Providers (FSP) like banks have also increased in the last three years, with the ultimate goal of implementing the National Financial Switch which is the main aim of the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL).

The solid Memorandum of Understanding between BSL and NATCOM will pave the way for the comprehensive regulation of Fintech services, for the benefit of both institutions and the Government of Sierra Leone as well as the consumers.

The expansion of Digital Financial Services (DFS) through Mobile Money platforms has been improving with digital penetration across the country.

As reported by BSL, Mobile Money use has seen unprecedented growth with improved coverage in Sierra Leone, with agents spread all around cities, towns and villages across the country.

DFS is being used to reach as many people as possible with products and services to improve their livelihoods and quality of life.

Consumer Parliament

In March 2021, NATCOM hosted the biggest and 6th Consumer Parliament event in Bo Njala University campus, with the last one being held in 2016.

Service providers had the opportunity to showcase their achievements in service implementation across the country and had face-to-face discussions with their consumers to hear their complaints about quality of service and general service delivery.

The event focused mainly on digital penetration for consumer satisfaction, which was applauded by all participants.