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Sierra Leone: the quiet revolution; When thinking of booming mobile phone markets, Sierra Leone is not the first place that springs to mind, but the country is going through something of a telephony renaissance. Nick Smith reports from Freetown.

When looking for the excitement surrounding the launch of wireless telephony, most heads turn to Europe. But new countrywide GSM wireless services, launched by the UK-based Gateway Communications and Datatel GSM, are having a very real impact on Sierra Leone's economy at a time when the country is benefiting from substantial growth, driven by political stability and considerable foreign investment.

Liberalisation of the country during the last five years by a forward-thinking government has led to the deregulation of the national phone company, Sierratel, and created the thriving telecom market that the country is currently experiencing.

The new license is also opening up the country by enabling the people to forge closer links with those living in the provinces--for some it will be the first time they have been able to communicate with friends and family in the countryside.

Traditionally, pan-African landline services have been the preserve of the chosen minority because of high usage charges, long delays on implementation and poor standards of service.

"Sierra Leone is coming alive with people and business moving fast," says Christian Ogoo, managing director of the Freetown-based Datatel GSM. "In the last three years, Sierra Leone has undergone significant economic development and social change through greater freedom of movement and overseas investment. As a result, there is now a growing awareness of wireless telephone services as people in Freetown and the provinces demand reliable and cost effective telecommunications."

With landline penetration of under 0.5%, Sierra Leone typifies the traditional African market for telecommunications. The development of fixed line communications is still constrained by a number of factors including most notably the speed of deregulation within the African continent. But all this is beginning to change in Sierra Leone.

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The use of mobile phones in Africa dramatically exceeds that of fixed line devices, and such is the perceived value of mobile phones, even by those on low incomes, that a significantly higher portion of their household earnings is spent on communications costs than in the developed world.

Recent statistics show there are around 36 million pan-African mobile phone users, a figure that is growing at a rate of 135% a year, numbers that are reflected in Sierra Leone.

Affordable GSM wireless services have been a huge help, making either pre-paid or subscription-based mobile phones a common sight in Freetown.

Deregulation and private partnership agreements such as that of Datatel-Gateway in Sierra Leone have sparked a massive fall in the cost of pan-African country-to-country calls and investment in telephony technology.

"In the last year there has been an upsurge in the number of wireless users in Sierra Leone as people naturally want to talk and communicate with their friends and relatives--this is something that is being mirrored by the business community," says Ogoo. "What we are now seeing is that entire households and neighbours are sharing phones because of the low cost of phone packages that are available."

Datatel's GSM service will start in Freetown in the second half of 2004, and will also be extended to the provincial areas of Bo and Kabala.

Other GSM services have been available in Freetown, but until now, subscribers have only been limited to making calls in the capital. With the advent of the Datatel agreement, the network will be the first to venture outside Freetown, offering phone services in the four largest provinces in Sierra Leone.

With pre-paid GSM phone packages costing as little as US$5.00, Datatel is also taking the technology into less well off areas where previously phones were luxury.

"We have worked with numerous service providers across Africa to establish networks that uses local skills and expertise and is something we have been able to do in Sierra Leone that is unique to this industry," says Peter Gbedemah, Gateway Communications managing director.

"We began by delivering fixed-line and data services to corporate, government and NGO markets, then offered calling card and dial-up internet access to the residential market," adds Gbedemah. "Three years on, Datatel is now the largest Internet Services Provider in Sierra Leone and is a leading player in the GSM residential arena. It is wonderful to now see the fruits of our labour and the impact we are having on daily life in Freetown when I visit, seeing people able to talk on the telephone."

Sierra Leone's telephony revolution continues apace. Plans for the next two years include projects to deliver new value added services such as roaming and international data services.
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Title Annotation:Around Africa
Author:Smith, Nick
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6SIER
Date:May 1, 2004
Words:745
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