Liberia: GSM Companies Battle Surcharges

Another attempt by Orange Liberia to subvert the imposition of regulatory surcharge fee yield no result. About a week ago Orange Liberia had filed a Petition for a Writ of Prohibition before Supreme Court Justice Jamesetta Howard Wollokollie challenging an order issued by the regulatory authority of the telecommunication sector in Liberia.

It can be recalled that in 2018 the Liberia Telecommunication Authority (LTA) issued Order 0016-02-25-19 imposing floor prices and surcharges on one-net voice calls and data. Before issuing the Order, the LTA got all stakeholders involved and their inputs were considered. The LTA also conducted public consultations to be able to make informed decisions. Thereafter, the Order was finalized and took effect.

This paper has learned that one major effect of the LTA Order was to abort the famous three days free-call as specifically requested by Orange Liberia and other stakeholders. Orange Liberia and the stakeholders allegedly argued at the time that it was necessary to stop the three days free call because they believed it had no economic benefits to their owners. Our investigation reveals that the famous three days free call was introduced by Celcom prior to Orange acquisition of Celcom through purchase as reported. It was likely a business strategy employed by Celcom to increase its customers in order to attract potential buyers like Orange.

The three days free calls having lasted for years, thus Celcom's customers definitely increased, and Celcom sold to Orange Liberia. Among other things, the three days free call prompted unfair competition and instability between Celcom (and later Orange Liberia) and Lonestar Cell MTN. As the result, LTA as the regulator issued the Order with the aim to achieve stability, coordination, and efficiency in the sector.

When Orange Liberia took over Celcom, and with its sole interest to maximize profit, it did not like the three days free call because Orange Liberia felt it could make more eliminating the three days free call. The Government too welcomed the idea likely because of its interest to collect revenue on paid calls, unlike free calls. Since there were no conflict of interests between the GSM companies on the one hand and the Government on the other hand, the LTA issued the Order which charges a floor price and surcharge in consultation with all stakeholders. Surprisingly, having collected eliminated the free call and collected revenue from the floor price as the LTA Order, Orange continues to refuse to pay the surcharge fee to the Government of Liberia as provided for in the same Order.

While still collecting the floor charge Orange Liberia took the Government to court refusing to pay the surcharge. The Government of Liberia has won the case in the lower court from which Orange Liberia have appealed to the full bench of the Supreme Court of Liberia.

However, having challenged the LTA Order which imposes floor charge and surcharge and in the face of its appeal, yet Orange continues to comply with the very Order ending the three days free call and collecting surcharge, especially the portion that benefits it, and burdens the Liberian people or their government. Legal pundits have also informed this paper that Orange has circumvented its appeal by complying with the lower court judgement pending its appeal.

Whilst the appeal is pending, LTA had issued an invoice to Orange Liberia and Lonestar MTN to pay the regulatory fees due the government in keeping the Order, since they are already complying with the Order and thus the judgment of the court below.

Orange has resisted and fled to the Chamber Justice to make a determination on the matter, but Justice Wolokollie declined to entertain the matter because the matter is presently before the full bench and one justice cannot act, however, she admonished the parties to pursue the appeal.

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