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Information Ministry undertakes giant reforms at SALCAB

September 2, 2020

By Alusine Sesay

Minister of Information and Communications,Mohamed Rahman Swaray

With the blessing of the Sierra Leone Cabinet, the Ministry of Information and Communications has proposed giant reforms at the Sierra Leone Cable Network (SALCAB), to enable universal access to communication across the country.

Minister of Information and Communications, Mohamed Rahman Swarray, told journalists yesterday that, as part of the reforms, they would unbundle SALCAB and apply public private partnership model to keep the institution up and running.

Sierra Leone received 30 million United States Dollar loan from World Bank for the landing of the submarine cable in the country, and according to the minister, the proposed reform would adopt the original arrangement of the bank for the fibre optic to be operating through a public private partnership model.

He said eight years since the establishment of SALCAB, the institution has remained moribund with little or no reform, while Sierra Leone remains the most expensive in the sub-region for voice and data communication hence the need to change strategy in the running of the institution.

The proposed National Digital Institutional Framework, he said would constitute a National Advisory Council on Digital Development that would be headed by the president.

In his presentation, Acting Director of ICT,Mohammed M. Jalloh, explained the rationale behind the unbundling of the institution, stating that the current bundled system gives way for poor performance.

“SALCAB is currently operating ACE Cable assets at less than 30% of its capacity and National Fibre Backbone (NFB) assets at less than 0.05% of its capacity. There are no incentives to push for optimum performance on both the ACE and NFB because they make enough money to keep ‘people happy. The government parastatal syndrome (no efforts to grow because day-to-day revenues are ok) has already set in to SALCAB,” reads the presentation.  

Also, he pinpoints financial expenses losses as a major reason behind the unbundling of SALCAB, stating that the institution is losing revenue through expenses and lost revenues.

He said Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are currently spending up to seven hundred thousand United States Dollars per month on transmission only and that the said cost can be reduced to three hundred and fifty thousand United States Dollars, if NFB assets are effectively utilised.

“Less than 0.05% of the USD 33 million NFB infrastructure has been utilised  since it was completed in 2014 .Together, aggregate losses from expenditure and ‘lack –of-use ‘ is estimated at over USD 4 million.”

On the potential benefit the reform would ensure for the country, he said it would stimulate revenue growth and drive penetration and access.

“With adequate management attention,NFB can generate revenues of up to USD 500K every month, compare to about USD 20K being realised. With efficient management, NFB cash flows can pay ECOWAN and Huawei loans in 10-12 years. The proposed new NFB management will increase the pace of internet access to reach 50% in 3 years,” he said.

 The ministry is also looking at cyber security considerations as another rationale behind the reform, and Jalloh stated in his presentation that the current cyber security landscape at the ACE Cable landing is significantly weak with no security device or systems for IP transit from the web.

“For national security perspective, it is imperative that minimum security measures at the landing site .This is the primary gateway for internet traffic in the country and should be the 1st line of defense and surveillance. Going forward, it is proposed that NATCOM adds ‘Deep Packet Inspections’ of IP transit from the landing station to its portfolio. The goal is to maintain robust surveillance of IP traffic to filter and potentially mitigate illegal use of IP transit. It will also enable national regulation of illegal or potentially dangerous content into the country.”

He said with the implementation of the proposed reforms, there would be a substantial increase in broadband internet penetration nationwide over the next 3to 5 years-from the current 17% to about 50% over the period.

He said there would be substantial improvement in the connectivity infrastructure to support ongoing e-Governance programmes, and enable a dramatic transformation in Government operations from manual paper-based systems to online system.

He continues that the reform would ensure a rationalised market landscape due to informed regulatory guidelines for the monopoly infrastructure operator and it will be possible for private sector to make complementary investments in the fibre optic cable sector.