It’s amazing how far we have come with mobile phone technology. It would seem for the good and for the bad. Already there are five mobile phone companies if you count in the analogue one, on test, operated by the national telecoms company, SIERRATEL. And I hear more are on their way regardless of the smallness of our market. Very far indeed we have come!
Do you remember how much we were fleeced when the first GSM mobile phone operator, namely CELTEL, came to Sierra Leone? Such was the meanness that whether or not a subscriber used their phone, they would have their credit balance deducted. Paying for simply carrying the phone, hmmm? How time has flown!
Such was the difficulty at the time that buying a Sim Card cost $ 40 and one would almost grow grey hair before obtaining it. Now it is as easy as cutting off the tail of a lizard or eating ripe banana.
But difficult as it was then there was security in the ownership or not of a mobile phone. With the current ease have come dire implications. Even buying cigarettes in England has more orderliness and consideration for the safety of the public than buying a sim card here. There is no recording of the data of owners so much so that anyone can do anything with a mobile phone, without trace.
There are more severe breaches of this than what befell me, but just a quick tale of mine to tell. The other day, according to some colleagues, someone impersonated me by putting a hoax call to the management of the Comium mobile phone company. He said he was me (the SLAJ President and BBC correspondent) and that I was getting married next week and needed assistance from them. In a not-too-clever way, someone at the company fell for the bait and gave the impostor Le 500,000 and three bags of rice I understand. Now all but one of the telephone numbers the impostor was using cannot be reached. He is not answering to his Tigo number that still does ring.
How many members of the public that are being threatened on the phone by people who can simply dump their sim cards after the sinister trick? There is talk now that young school-going girls keep fake-calling numbers taking a chance that the call may turn out to be a rich man’s number. I know of at least two instances when such calls have almost broken homes. Imagine an apparently young man who called a lady friend of mine, in her sixties, the other day on the phone stalking her. All of this is happening without redress. All because telephone numbers are not registered and can be bought as easily as giving out alms. Even that, a grateful recipient of your poor rate will ask what your name is, so as to add it to the thank-you-sir or madam.
Such is the seriousness of the recklessness with which we regulate or not our mobile phone companies that hardcore criminals and those who are a serious threat to our security, will infiltrate our system without us knowing a thing. There should be a deliberate strategy forthwith to correct this long period of disorder in the mobile phone market otherwise we have ourselves to blame should something go awry.
But the disorder does not stop there. The recent erratic behaviour of Celtel and Comium, the networks that I subscribe to, is such that my stress level is hitting rooftop. Often times, in recent times, you want to send an SMS on Comium it will take a Salpost letter to get to Bumpeh in Kono before that text reaches its local destination. Or you receive who-called alerts from Celtel of calls that were made to you weeks ago.
The initial regulators of the mobile phone market probably bungled a fundamental thing by bringing the codes for Celtel (076) and Africell (077) so close to each other. Now that is coming to confuse us. With Celtel having exhausted 076, it was allocated the code 078, which is much closer to Africell than it is to Celtel. And look at where Africell was sent off to – 088. What would have been wrong with simply adding one more digit? I am not an engineer but I remember when SIERRATEL shot beyond its estimated customer base, they added one more digit to the five that had existed.
But back to the companies! Such is their greed even among themselves that even though we are a poor country, many of us have been forced to be carrying more than one handset. The difference in tariff in calling from one network to another is such that people have been forced to do whatever it takes to have at least two mobile phone phones. I think the regulatory body, be it the ministry of communications or the National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM), should intervene in addressing this daylight robbery.
In fact, most times SMSes from Celtel do not go across to an Africell number. If this is customer-friendly, I wonder what service the customer is entitled to. And talking about customer friendliness or not brings me to the crop of people that I get to talk to sometimes at the so-called customer care service of some of these companies. You call and hold on until your battery runs out without care given to you. Where you manage to get someone to speak to you, they sometimes sound as disinterested as they are unfriendly. Who is doing who a favour here, I ask some of them sometimes.
But back to SIERRATEL…I still have not got out of my misery as to the mystery behind Government’s continued – strengthened – dealing with the national telecommunications company. In this day and age of governments around the world proving to be bad managers and taking their hands off the running of such corporations, we are entrenching ours around SIERRATEL. If that is a feat, I am wondering what defeat can mean and should be. Call you on Monday on your mobile phone number…
By Umaru Fofana