In 2009, the LTA issued the Interconnection Regulation setting forth the basic guidelines for cell phone companies to interconnect with a view to increasing access to communications across networks for the benefit of subscribers.
Interconnection in the realm of telecommunication is the physical linking of the network of one telecommunications carrier to another carrier’s network for the sole purpose of transmitting voice and data. Usually, the terms and conditions of such arrangements are concluded in an agreement between the interested parties to prevent dominance and monopolistic tendencies by bigger carriers.
Unfortunately though, the month of August witnessed a lot of communication exchanges between the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA) and the LoneStar Communication Corporation on one hand and the Cellcom GSM service provider and the LTA on the other hand. The exchanges actually centered around an interconnection dispute between the two GSM service providers – Lonestar and Cellcom.
The dispute dates back to early August this year when a complaint from Cellcom was filed with the Liberia Telecommunications Authority alleging that the Lonestar GSM Company had blocked all the interconnection devices and equipment which enabled Cellcom subscribers to get connected with Lonestar subscribers and vice versa.
LTA as regulator of the telecommunications sector quickly intervened in the dispute when the situation between the two GSM entities was brought to its attention with the view of ensuring that subscribers using the network of the two disputing GSM operators remain connected and not victimized, and secondly to bring the escalating situation between the two entities to an amicable resolution.
As a result the Liberia Telecommunications Authority warned both Lonestar and Cellcom to desist from making it difficult for subscribers to easily connect and remain connected with other subscribers and that it will not tolerate what it considered as an “unacceptable practice” designed to frustrate hundreds of thousands of consumers using the facilities of the GSM networks in the country.
Speaking on the issue in early September, the Commissioner in charge of Consumer and Public Affairs, Lamini A. Waritay, disclosed that the LTA had been receiving numerous complaints from GSM subscribers throughout the country about difficulties they are encountering in seamlessly communicating with each other while using their mobile phones.
He noted that most of the interconnection complaints were coming from Cellcom and Lonestar subscribers, with Cellcom subscribers complaining that they often find it extremely difficult to connect with Lonestar network, and vice versa.
Commissioner Waritay disclosed that the LTA was aware of an ongoing interconnectivity fees dispute between Lonestar and Cellcom in which Lonestar is alleging that Cellcom owes it certain amounts in interconnection payments, a claim Cellcom is disputing with Cellcom claiming that it is the Lonestar that owes it.
Commissioner Waritay further disclosed that the dispute has been so serious that the LTA, in consultation with the two GSM companies, resolved to bring in external auditors for the purpose of verifying the interconnectivity fees claims being made by both Cellcom and Lonestar.
While the LTA was taking steps to resolve the impasse between the two GSM service providers it reminded all network operators, especially Lonestar and Cellcom, of the LTA’s statutory responsibility of ensuring that all subscribers have unimpeded access to all licensed telecommunications networks and that subscribers get value for their money by enabling them not only to connect easily and stay connected on the various GSM networks, but also to enjoy a reasonable level of quality of service.
The telecommunications regulatory body stressed that it will take swift and appropriate measures against any GSM company that violates the terms and conditions stated in its license and, by extension, the Telecom Act that mandates the LTA to ensure that the rights of consumers to freely interconnect and communicate at any time throughout the country are not compromised.
Pursuant to the Authority granted to the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA) by the Liberia Telecommunications Act of 2007, the Board of Commissioners of the LTA issued and published, on the 19th of August 2011, an LTA order -0004-08-19-11 stating among other things that in consultation with the Lonestar Communications Company and Cellcom Communications, it has appointed an independent Consultant for the purpose of auditing the interconnection records of both Lonestar and Cellcom.
The LTA further noted with serious concern in the Order the practice adopted by the Lonestar and Cellcom companies to flood it (LTA) with a mirage of complaints and counter-complaints rather than cooperating with the Independent Consultant on a constructive level to bring the interconnection matter to closure within a reasonable timeframe. The LTA Order consequently issued a stop order to both Lonestar and Cellcom to immediately cease and desist from sending any further complaints and counter-complaints and any other communication touching on the interconnection dispute between the parties directly to the LTA. In the Order, LTA also directed that any such communication related to and connected with the ongoing interconnection dispute between the Parties be forwarded to the Independent Consultant for appropriate redress.
Concluding, LTA Order -0004-08-19-11, pursuant to its statutory obligations and powers, ordered both Lonestar and Cellcom to sign an interconnection agreement between them and submit a signed copy to the LTA within a period of one calendar week effective as of the date of publication of this Order in the National Gazette. An amount of US$50,000.00 (Fifty thousand United States Dollars) payable to the LTA was stated in the Order as penalty for non-compliance.
On August 22, 2011 a letter from the LTA General Counsel G. Wiefueh A. Sayeh informed the Chief Executive Officer of Cellcom, Mr. Avishai Marziano, of the challenge raised by Lonestar to the bond filed by the Insurance Company of Africa (ICA) in favor of Cellcom. In this regard, the LTA mandated Cellcom to file a replacement bond to which Cellcom complied. The Lonestar again objected to the new bond tendered on behalf of Cellcom by the ICA within the three days allowed by the LTA, stating the following reasons for the objection:
1. That the period of the dispute stated in the Cellcom bond was misquoted—that said period should reflect June 2009 to March 2011;
2. That said bond also stipulates that in the event of the failure of Cellcom to make payment of the amount(s) as determined by the independent auditor, it is the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA) that is to serve notice of Cellcom’s refusal to make payment. Lonestar’s position is that it is Lonestar that will serve ICA with notice of Cellcom’s failure to make payment in order for ICA to make immediate payment without delay;
3. That ICA provides a copy of its most recent audited financial statements together with its bank statement for the period July 1, 2011 to August 15, 2011.
The LTA concurs with Lonestar on Count One regarding the start date of the dispute and requested that Cellcom informs ICA to make the necessary corrections.
The LTA however disagrees with Count Two, stating that since LTA is serving as the administrative agency to whom the issue was brought before for resolution, it will be the LTA that will inform ICA of Cellcom’s failure to comply with LTA’s order to make payment to Lonestar based on the findings of the independent auditor, and order ICA to make payment to Lonestar in keeping with the bond posted by ICA for and behalf of Cellcom.
Regarding Count Three, the LTA agrees with Lonestar that ICA provides its most recent audited financial statements as part of due diligence to be conducted by Lonestar—given that ICA, as guarantor for Cellcom in the event it is determined that Cellcom is liable to Lonestar and Cellcom fails to make full payment to Lonestar. To ensure that ICA has the financial capacity to fully redeem the bond, LTA says it is consistent with law and practice that ICA makes available most recent audited financial documents requested by the Lonestar Counsel.
The LTA General Counsel letter concluded by stating that LTA expects Cellcom to ensure that the issues raised by Lonestar’s Counsel will be resolved and that the documents along with the corrected bond requested by the said Counsel, will be made available no later than 5:00 p.m. on Friday August 26, 2011.
Subsequently on November 30, 2011 the LTA sent a letter to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Cellcom Telecommunications Inc. stating its regrets over Cellcom’s non-cooperation with the audit being carried out by Interconnect (ICC) relative to the Cellcom and Lonestar interconnection fees dispute. The Chairperson of LTA Madam Angelique Weeks expressed on behalf of the Board of Commissioners of the LTA its profound regrets that the anticipated cooperation and support from Cellcom has been less forthcoming than from Lonestar.
In her letter she pointed out that “Although Cellcom has relevant staff to enable ICC to gain an in-depth understanding of Cellcom’s systems and processes for preparing the interconnection billing data and bills, Cellcom has refused to issue both the Call Data Record (CDR) and supporting information that ICC has requested including the following:
• CDRs for 26/05/11 and 31/10/11
• To-Be process/systems data
• 2 years interconnect records
• Monthly call totals incoming and outgoing – may be just for 2009 since 2008 lost
• Emails showing interconnect bill generation process flow
• Screenshots of To-Be- raw/processed CDRs & interconnect billing module & report
• Analysis Mason Network Report (COO advises this is actually a marketing study)
• Tariff history & current details
• Timeline of Core Network changes
• Timeline of Billing System changes
• 2009/2010 audited accounts
• Organization Chart
Based on information provided by ICC, the LTA’s understanding is that Cellcom has refused to provide the outstanding data and information requested by ICC until LTA addresses certain issues regarding the scope of work. Consequently, the unavailability to ICC of such critical CDR information is preventing ICC from progressing or completing the key tasks associated with the audit scope of work that had been sent to Cellcom for review and to which Cellcom had agreed.
The LTA chairperson’s letter further stated that while the auditors may have been able to progress with other tasks based on the information that has been gathered from interviews and records provided over the last several weeks, ICC cannot finalize its assessment and findings until Cellcom provides the supporting information that has been requested.
In apparent reference to Cellcom’s refusal to provide the outstanding data and information requested by ICC until LTA addresses certain issues regarding the scope of work, LTA Board of Commissioners Chairperson Weeks reminded Cellcom in her letter of the LTA’s position on the issue as previously stated by Commissioner Henry W. Benson during the ICC/Cellcom introductory meeting on Thursday, October 27, 2011.
According to madam Weeks, that position was, and remains that the issues raised by Cellcom will be addressed at the conclusion of the ICC final report. The Chairperson’s letter further assured Cellcom that if its concern is not addressed, the LTA would obtain the requisite expertise to implement said task. To further allay Cellcom’s concerns, the LTA informed Cellcom that the LTA believes that the billing issue relating to the LTA’s 2008 Order (relative to the range of interconnection rates authorized to be charged), can be easily resolved once Interconnect completes its audit and report regarding the accuracy of billing records of Cellcom and Lonestar.
The chair stated that thereafter, LTA can conduct a regulatory review, make findings and reach conclusions relative thereto. The letter concluded by stating that in view of the foregoing, Cellcom is expected to provide the information requested by ICC in order to complete its assignment. It went to state further that since Cellcom have heretofore had ample time to submit the required information, the deadline for submission of requested documents was being set at 12 noon on Thursday, December 1, 2011. The letter then urged Cellcom to take the matter seriously and comply without further delay, and that failure to do so will leave the LTA with no alternative but to take appropriate punitive measures against Cellcom for non-compliance with LTA’s order...
To date, Cellcom has failed to heed LTA’s order and advice.