‘A Threat to National Security’: LTA Warns Liberia’s GSM Companies against Non-Compliant Posture on Additional Surcharge

The LTA warned that the GSM Companies refusal to pay the surcharges to government while at the same time threatening to disrupt services during this period of crisis may be considered as a threat to national security

MONROVIA – GSM operators in Liberia are refusing to pay to the Government additional surcharges on voice calls and mobile data, claiming doing such would make their operations less viable, but the regulator, Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA), says their stance is tantamount to threat against national security.

Report by Lennart Dodoo, [email protected]

The surcharge of US$0.008 for each minute of voice call and US$0,0065 for each megabyte of data was expected to be introduced in March this year – six months after the cancellation of the famous three days ‘free call’ and the introduction of a new floor pricing system.

The three day ‘free’ call was a promo ran by both networks for over three years where US$1 gives customers three days of unlimited voice calls, SMS and 50 megabyte of data.

Liberians did not accept the new tariffs with a light heart. But the LTA argued that the cancellation of the promo and the introduction of the new tariffs were necessary to save the sector, bring about competition and improvement in the telecommunications sector. It would also help government raise the requisite revenue through the sector, the LTA disclosed.

‘We Can’t Pay’

As the LTA has now come banging on the doors of GSM Companies for the remittance, both companies have indicated that they are unable to pay the surcharge now or in the foreseeable future based on their current and projected revenue and economic realities.

“To do so would mean at best a drastic reduction in our investments and downsizing of our operations and at worst, a conclusion by our parent companies that our business is not sustainable in Liberia. It is our utmost wish for this not to be the case, but circumstances may make this unavoidable,” both Orange Liberia and Lonestar Cell MTN stated in a joint communication to the LTA on April 30.

The two companies stated that their total revenue for the month of March 2020 along with their expenditures make it impossible to take on the additional expenses. They warned that this could hamper the sustainability of the sector.

“The fact remains that we do not have the capacity to pay the surcharge as the industry has not generated that level of income. The data analysis presented by both Orange and Lonestar Cell MTN has been confirmed. This surcharge cannot be absorbed by the industry. Furthermore, we cannot give what was never collected. As we were under the belief that the surcharge was on hold, there were no attempts to pass this on to the customer,” the GSM Companies insisted.

They further disclosed that the surcharge would be passed onto the customer.

“In this period of coronavirus, it is unconscionable, and contradictory to ask consumers to pay more, while also asking us to provide consumers with affordable packages as was done through Orange Care and Y’ello Hope. The surcharges would place Liberia as one of the most expensive countries for communications across Africa,” the communication stated.

National Security Threat

In a four-paragraph communication, the LTA stated the GSM Companies adamant posture on the payment of the surcharge to government and the same time threatening to disrupt telecommunications in Liberia in this time of national emergency is “ill-advised and may be considered a threat to national security”.

LTA encouraged the GSM Companies to carefully the terms and conditions your licenses, the relevant provisions of LTA rules, orders and regulations and the Telecommunications Act in order to remain within the boundaries of established compliance and grievance resolution procedures.

“In this period of coronavirus, it is unconscionable, and contradictory to ask consumers to pay more, while also asking us to provide consumers with affordable packages as was done through Orange Care and Y’ello Hope. The surcharges would place Liberia as one of the most expensive countries for communications across Africa.”

– Orange Liberia & Lonestar Cell MTN

Are GSM Companies Depriving Government?

In a recent analysis by T. Moses Saywah, he noted that despite the crumbling effect COVID-19 is having on businesses and the Liberian economy, GSM Companies in the country continue to flourish in their business.

In intimated that messaging app, WhatsApp, has experienced a 40 percent rise in the number of people using the platform to either keep in touch socially or telecommute. And this number is higher in places where there are more cases of COVID-19.

He noted in the analysis which was also published by FrontPageAfrica

By February of this year, just when the virus was starting to take hold in Africa and social distancing became a common practice, there was further rise in the use of data and voice calls. This time, the rise was steep. More and more Liberians are now using varying social media platforms in order to connect with others.

When business is good, that means tens of millions of dollars for both GSM companies. This is why their deafening silence is so loud at a time when Liberians need them the most. And according to multiple sources, the once competitive rivals have begun to act in synergy in a sadistic attempt to withhold legitimate revenue from the government of Liberia. Every responsible business entity is required to pay their fair share of taxes. That’s just the golden principle.

At a time when the potential for the government to be cash-strapped – during an unprecedented global crisis – for any business entity to be in connivance to deprive the suffering majority of the people their just taxes, when it is making millions of dollars off their backs is utterly callous. So rather than devising devious machinations to fight against the payment of their legitimate bills, it’s high time these companies own up to their responsibilities.

The government, in fact, recently unveiled a socio-economic package which would bring some relief to millions of vulnerable people who are afflicted in ways we can only begin to imagine. But that will have to be funded by money that’s not sitting in the bank. Even if the budget is recast by the legislature to make up for the unexpected cost, the money still has been generated through taxes and other means.

Therefore, if these GSM companies truly “CARE” as their many adverts would have us believe, now is NOT the time for just promoting additional platforms under the guise of fighting the disease – when we all know it only brings them more profit. Instead, they should contribute in hard currency.  The people (and the government) helped pulled them out of a woods.

Instead, while many who are already struggling to eke out a living are using resources they barely have in order help their compatriots, Orange and Lonestar MTN are sitting on tens of millions of dollars from the unanticipated windfall. They should pay their fair share for the ‘responsible’ corporate citizens they claim to be, not the other way around.