Sunday 13 February 2022

Poor Infrastructure is hindering the growth of Mobile Services in The Gambia

In 1664, the United Kingdom established a colony in The Gambia focused on exporting enslaved people across the Atlantic. During the roughly 300 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the UK and other European powers may have exported as many as 3 million people from The Gambia. Today the populations stands between 2.2 and 2.45 million.

The Gambia’s telecom market is dominated by the incumbent operator Gamtel, which retains a monopoly on fixed-line telephony services. There are five mobile network operators providing effective competition, although the most recent Giraffe Telecom was only licensed in January 2022 and is yet to be assigned spectrum. The market leader is Africell, with about 62% of the market, while Comium and QCell compete closely for second and third place. Gamtel’s mobile unit Gamcel is by far the smallest operator, having suffered from underinvestment in recent years. Comium has also suffered from financial difficulties: its failure to pay accumulated fees resulted in the government having sought a temporary suspension of its services in mid-2021.

Mobile penetration is well above the African average, mostly due to the poor condition of the fixed-line infrastructure and the lack of availability of fixed services in many rural areas of the country.

Africell is the operator with the largest user share. It gives the best coverage in 2G and 3G, but can suffer from slow speeds due to overcrowding. It is recommended, if you go outside of the centers and don't need the highest speeds.

In January 2018 Africell has announced the commercial launch of 4G/LTE network services, joining rival QCell which introduced Gambia’s first LTE mobile service in 2017. They have posted a series of promotional YouTube videos showing live LTE network speed tests with download/upload rates exceeding 68Mbps/20Mbps.

Africell Gambia has recently implemented ‘its biggest network footprint expansion in 15 years’ despite the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their executives highlighted new ‘smart’ rural cell sites using advanced solar-powered technology, giving remote communities access to telecoms services ‘without creating a negative environmental footprint’. Africell Gambia boasts 93% territorial coverage and continues to lead the local cellular market with ‘over 1.6 million subscribers’, according to its management.

QCell was the first provider to introduce 3G in 2012. It is the only operator offering HSPA called 3G+. Their 3G is has expanded rapidly in the last years and covers 86% of the population in 2016 to reach nationwide coverage by end of 2017. In 2017 it started FD-LTE on an undisclosed frequency in the Greater Banjul area. 

QCell mostly offers faster speeds than Africell, but still a slightly lower overall coverage and no fall back to 2G. They care for 17% of the users and are considered the premium provider in the country.

Gamcel is run by the state-owned Gambia Telecommunications Company Ltd., or in short Gamtel. It has proven to be quite unreliable with a low coverage and almost non-existent 3G. Their company is notoriously cash-stricken and service has been bad in the past. This provider is not recommended for travellers.

In late June 2019, Gamtel, in collaboration with Chinese technology firm Huawei, launched the National Broadband Network (NBN) initiative to expand internet speed and access across the country. Gamtel reportedly owes Gambian dalasi 1.25 billion ($24.3 million) in loans for the project as of January 2021. While broadband installation is still ongoing, accessibility and speed remain a significant challenge. In 2020, the government approved a national broadband policy which aims to provide “at least 75 percent of homes to have affordable access to high speed internet connectivity by 2022,” defined as an upload and download rate of at least 5 Mbps. Gamtel owns the fiber-optic cable that runs across the country and thus controls the country’s connection to the international internet via the ACE submarine cable system.

In February 2019, it was reported that the government had agreed to restructure Gamtel and Gamcel, such that Gamcel operates under independent management, and to divest shares in Gamcel. No further developments have been reported.

Comium recently had its services suspended for a month in October 2021 for non-payment of fees they claim they are ‘committed’ to paying their dues in full with the help of a new UK-based investor. The Public Utility Regulatory Authority (PURA) has demanded that Comium pay GMD69.1 million (USD1.3 million) to settle overdue licensing, spectrum and international gateway fees, and local press reported that Comium has already pledged to pay GMD14 million and indicated it will hand over the remainder if PURA lifts the suspension.

At the press conference Comium highlighted that it is owed GMD21 million by state-owned operator Gamtel, while declaring that it has signed an agreement with a new international investor with the objective of resolving all current financial and network issues, and with the ambition of launching 4G and 5G services at a later stage.

Gambia’s telecoms minister Ebrima Sillah has confirmed that the Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure (MOICI) has issued the country’s fifth GSM mobile network operating licence to a start-up company named Giraffe Telecom, The Voice newspaper reported yesterday. Minister Sillah stated that ‘there is a space for a fifth operator’, adding that heightened competition would be ‘good for the Gambian customers’. Regarding availability of mobile frequencies, Sillah disclosed: ‘PURA [Public Utility Regulatory Authority] some months ago did a consultancy on usage of spectrum and it’s a fact that almost 75% or more of the entire spectrum of the country is in the hands of two operators and sometimes not being used. So, the spectrum alignment consultancy was meant to ensure that you keep what you pay for and what you use and the rest should return back to the state and ensure it’s reused or for other purposes.’ Regarding Giraffe’s ownership, the minister noted that ‘between 60% and 70%’ of the new company is owned by ‘ordinary Gambians who are doing business in this country.’

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