Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Liberia becomes unwired

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Fifteen out of every 100 Liberians own a cellphone, a total of 563,000 in all. This is a drop in the bucket compared to cellphone ownership in Manitoba or much of the developed world, for that matter. But it is symptomatic of what is happening in much of Africa where there were 65-million new subscribers in 2007 for a total of over a quarter-billion mobile owners on the continent. This is despite poverty levels that force many people to live on US$1 a day.

Liberia is a microcosm of the communications revolution that is sweeping Africa.

Many things have contributed to the growth of cellphone ownership, but the aftermath of its long civil war, competition and the need to communicate in new ways are the main driving forces.

The destruction of Liberia's fixed-wire land lines during the civil war has led to technological innovation and commercial competition. As the first civil war was drawing to a close in 1996 there were still some wire-based telephones in Liberia. However, the price of copper being high, the last of the telephone wires were vandalized. The election of Charles G. Taylor as president in the following year coincided with the introduction of mobile telephones by a company called Atlantic Wireless, which eventually became Liber Cell.

They dealt only with satellite phone services, which most people could not afford. In May 2001, President Taylor and other investors set up the Lone Star cellular network and began operating GSM (global system for mobile communications), which continues to offer telephone service throughout the republic today.

For rich and poor a cellphone has become an essential consumer item for many in Africa. Despite their relatively small population of 3.5 million, Liberians are part of this revolution. Evidence of this is the Liberian penchant of frequently contributing their opinions on current issues to BBC's World Have Your Say and other similar interactive radio programs using the SMS (small message system) feature on their mobile phones.

Liberians have acquired mobiles for even more serious reasons than entering into global radio conversations. The need to learn the fate of lost relatives and friends and to reunite families after the war was another reason why Liberians acquired cellphones. Cellphones are expensive. The device must receive a regular electrical charge costing 15 cents in U.S. currency. The 14-year civil war in Liberia not only put paid to its telecommunication infrastructure but also destroyed its power grid. Diesel or gasoline generators supply whatever electricity is now available. Dotted along every road in Monrovia are small kiosks whose proprietors offer communications support. Each is equipped with a small diesel or gasoline generator, which charges cellphones, and the proprietors also sell recharge cards. And then there is the cost involved in acquiring the basic equipment. Although Lone Star began the cellular revolution in Liberia there is now serious competition between cellphone providers.

At first Lone Star enjoyed a monopoly position. In 2001 Lone Star sold their first Erickson telephones for US$100 each, the SIM (subscriber identity module) card or network chip for $65 and the lowest recharge card at $15. Lone Star was forced to lower their prices when its principal rival Cellcom entered the consumer fray. Cellcom introduced Motorola C 15 phones for $49 each with a SIM card at $5. Lone Star imported a shipment of phones selling for $40 each. Cellcom then countered with a consignment of Motorola C 13 phones at $39, $29, and $15. Cellcom still has the $29 phone available, but Lone Star now offers a $25 mobile. Lone Star (advertising motto "Communication for the Nation") continues to be the largest carrier followed by Cellcom ("Always Number One").

With a GDP per capita of $136 in 2008, Liberia belongs to the "low-income" countries. This means that most of its population lives on less than $1 per day. The question arises as to how so many can manage to acquire and maintain a mobile telephone.

Poor people cannot often afford the recharge cards. So they keep a minimum amount in their mobile, "buzz" and then quickly disconnect from the cellphone of the person with whom they want to speak, who then receives their number as a "missed call" and hopefully calls back.

With their basic wire-based telephone infrastructure intact and many Internet-based possibilities available, mobile telephones and their onerous contracts are a luxury many North Americans can no longer afford. Africans, and in particular Liberians, both need and want cellphones.

Having access to telecommunications is not (yet) considered a basic human right. Still, it is an important way to alleviate poverty and to give the poor a voice in the world. And so the fact that Liberia has no plans to replace the fixed telephone lines they lost during the civil way is not necessarily a bad thing. In comparison with its past Liberia has become an unwired world and part of a communications revolution now sweeping Africa.

John J. Perry is an academic from St. Paul's College and the University of Manitoba on a research study leave in Liberia.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2009 A11

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