Liberia: Battle Over Surcharge Continues

The imposition of surcharges on Liberian telecommunications consumers by mobile network operators (MNOs) in obedience to an order from the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA) has generated intense debate across various sectors in Monrovia. Last week, subscribers of Liberia's two MNOs experienced an abrupt hike in the prices of data and voice services which, the MNO's said, they were imposing as a result of LTA order #0016-02-25-19. However, within hours of the publishing of the rates and widespread public outcry, the LTA issued a release pointing fingers back at the MNOs and at least one of the MNOs has responded with an official press statement to reinforce its position that it is only implementing the increase in tariffs in conformity to the orders of the Liberian Supreme court and the LTA.

The order that imposed the surcharge was issued on February 25, 2019, and immediately introduced floor prices, which led to the cancellation of popular promotions such as the "3 days unlimited free calls." The same order mandated the imposition of an additional surcharge on all on-net voice calls and all data purchases. At an appearance before the Liberian Senate, both MNO's requested that the Liberian government not implement the surcharge, which they referred to as "harmful". After the hearing, the Senate Committee on telecommunications sent a memo to plenary stating: "the Senate, as a matter of urgency, should engage the LTA not to impose the contemplated surcharge until the country's economic conditions are favorable."

Orange Liberia went further to sue the LTA at the Liberian Civil Law court, a case that reached the level of the Supreme Court in the company's bid to prevent the imposition of the surcharge, on grounds that it would have a devastating effect on the Liberian telecommunications industry. Once the Supreme Court ruled against Orange Liberia, and the company lost its fight to prevent the imposition of the surcharge, it immediately issued a statement that it would begin to implement the surcharge. In the statement posted on its page on October 1, the company stated: "Orange Liberia informs all its customers that it will place an "additional cost" (surcharge) in the amounts of US$0.008 for each minute of on-net voice call and US$0.00065 for each megabyte of data in compliance with LTA Order: 0016-02-25-19 issued by the Liberia Telecommunications Authority on February 25, 2019. As of Monday, 5th October 2020, offers shall be amended gradually going forward."

Although neither MNO had imposed the surcharge while the matter was pending before the courts, the LTA nevertheless sent Orange Liberia a bill of US$16.4 million and a bill of US$9 million to Lonestar Cell MTN, requesting that the companies pay even though the surcharge was never implemented because of the court-ordered injunction against doing so. The service providers contend that the surcharges were never intended to be paid from their own resources; the surcharges were intended to be "additional costs" to be added on their costs, paid by the users of telecommunications services, collected by the service providers and paid over to the LTA.

In another statement issued this week, Orange Liberia stated that it had paid all of its outstanding taxes, and regulatory fees to the government but being forced to pay the surcharges, which the company had not previously imposed, would be tantamount to forcing the company to close. Orange Liberia stated: "By LTA demanding now that Orange Liberia should pay the surcharges ("additional costs") in the amount of US$19.3 million, which was never collected by Orange Liberia from its customers, the LTA is effectively ordering Orange Liberia into bankruptcy; which is unacceptable to Orange Liberia."

Public sentiments against the imposition of the surcharge continue to mount from all corners of Liberia with citizens increasingly calling on the government to abandon the surcharge as a way to help ease some of their daily financial burdens.

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