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SALCAB Saga: The Truth Behind The Jitters

Social and mainstream media have been awash with deliberate misinformation and skewed write ups intended to hoodwink the unsuspecting public into believing that the government of Sierra Leone has sold or privatised the Sierra Leone Cables Network Limited or SALCAB. There was even the falsehood peddled that a company having the full support of the Ministry of Information and Communications has been awarded the management contract of SALCAB.

The Problem

Government under the Medium Term National Development Plan has earmarked key areas for reforms for increased efficiency. The Ministry Of Information and Communications under cluster 3.5 of the MTNDP had developed concept papers aimed at instituting the said reforms within entities under its supervision.

Sierra Leone Cables Network Limited (SALCAB) happens to be one of such entities that has been selected for transformation, but not alone. National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM), Sierratel, SALPOST are all under consideration for reforms. In the specific case of SALCAB, government wants greater efficiency in connectivity service delivery since digitisation is another vision of President Julius Maada Bio who has been harping on the country not losing out on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in most of his public engagements. The three broad pillars are, increased ICT services, bandwidth leasing and last mile connectivity.

These intended reforms are what some now want to resist with the toughness of a diamond and the strength of a bear. Normally, change comes at some inconvenience but necessary for the good of the greater majority.

SALCAB’s Operations

SALCAB has been in existence for the better part of 10 years now. Its primary functions are, to increase internet penetration and access, help drive down internet costs and enhance quality of services. Under its broad scope, SALCAB is tasked with the responsibility of making internet available and accessible to the public and to ensure reliability and quality of services provided.

There are two components of SALCAB’s operations, which have direct impact on the attainment of the goals, aims and objectives for which it was created. The landing of the submarine cables whilst the terrestrial backbone component handles connecting the landed cables to all areas of the country in order for its mandate of increasing penetration, access and quality internet to be achieved. It was envisaged that the landing of the submarine fibre cables would push down costs of mobile and internet connectivity by more than half of its current pricing.

After more than eight years in operation, with over $60,000,000 (sixty million dollars) pumped into it, the results are a far cry from what was envisaged. For example, only 13% of Sierra Leoneans use mobile internet service, while a dismal 3.8% use fixed wireless services. Even the mobile telephony is still low in Sierra Leone and is pegged at 24.20% of the population. The low penetration and access have direct links with the way SALCAB has been managed over the years.

Over the past eight years and with such huge amount of money invested in the fibre assets, the poor results have become unacceptable by the current government. The reforms in SALCAB’s operations are underpinned by these poor or unpleasant results.

The Reforms

The strategic objective of the reform is to;

1. Increase mobile broadband internet penetration to 60% and fixed wireless access to 20% over the next three years.

2. Reduce mobile data and fixed wireless internet costs to below the median in comparison to other countries in the sub region.

The reform would see the separation called unbundling of the two major services provided by SALCAB, that the cable landing system or international internet cable functions from the terrestrial backbone or local transmission backhaul operations. The first component is at an advanced stage since the cables landed some years back, but the second is virtually in a state of comatose and this administration is determined to get it up and running.

Therefore, the MIC proposed to cabinet that the fibre optic operation be opened to private sector investment in order to optimise usage, penetration, access and affordability all rolled into one. The privatisation of the ACE cable has been a strategic objective of the MIC because of the belief that private sector investment will invariably lead to increased and improved connectivity in the country. The private sector investment can lead to even maximising revenue generation for government whilst simultaneously enhancing connectivity. It has the potential to even attract the landing of a second cable for alternative use in case of damage or disruption to the only existing one. It can also help reduce mobile cost since most of the mobile phone operators rely on satellite link to run their towers, and its very expensive. The connection to fibre is stronger more reliable and cheaper, which has the knock on effect of compelling a push down in mobile operations in the country.

Privatising this aspect of SALCAB will give the new management ( which will be done openly and transparently) an opportunity to move the fibre to even the last village in all the corners of the country.

Allaying Fears

The transformation of SALCAB’s current operational model does not in any way mean people are going to lose their jobs. On the contrary, the intended ACE cable operator can open more job opportunities for Sierra Leoneans. The present management of SALCAB will not be dismantled totally as peddled but rather will have a hitherto dysfunctional aspect of their work operationalised for the benefit of the country.

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