Lonestar: Satellite Dish Installed But Not Activated

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Amidst an ongoing investigation by the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA) into the re-installation of a decommissioned satellite dish by the cellular giant, Lonestar Cell MTN, the mobile operator has released a statement declaring its innocence in the whole saga. Nevertheless, it admitted that it re-installed the decommissioned dish, but has not re-activated it in Toe Town, Grand Gedeh County.

However, it is yet to disclose why it re-installed said equipment in the first place; and more so, in the very location where it was the first time when it (Lonestar) was asked to decommission it.

In its findings, a team from the telecommunication sector’s regulator, LTA, reported that after careful assessment of the three GSM mobile operators' sites in Nimba and Grand Gedeh, it observed that a microwave dish has been re-installed at the same height and in the same position as the decommissioned microwave dish, which had sparked concern. That dish, which Lonestar had installed, according to LTA, had illegally connected the GSM company to La Côte d’Ivoire.

The LTA finding furthered, “In Yekepa, on the old mine by LAMCO, Cellcom and LoneStar Cell MTN dishes seem to have orientation directed away from La Cote d’Ivoireand Guinea”.

The report recommended that LoneStar Cell MTN should be requested to provide purpose and function of the newly-installed microwave dish in Toe Town.

The LTA and LoneStar Cell have in the past been involved in exchanges over compliance with regulations.

In December 2012, the Board of Commissioners of the LTA reached a decision to suspend the operating license of Lonsetar cell.

LTA Chairperson Angelique Weeks at the time announced that the decision was taken as a punitive measure resulting from failure of the Lonestar to comply with the LTA’s directive to restore fully interconnection with Comium Liberia, another GSM service provider.

The LTA boss has said that this fact-finding mission was carried out in response to a tip off. What is at issue is whether or not GSM Operator LoneStar Cell MTN, without prior authorization from the LTA, reinstalled or reactivated the telecommunications dish, which can be used to supply broadband data capacity from La Côte d’Ivoire to Liberia.

In the wake of the “leaked LTA report” while the investigation is ongoing, the LTA is poised to dismantle the telecommunication dish in question, which is mounted on a tower in Toe Town, Grand Gedeh County, bordering La Côte d’Ivoire.

According to reports, the dish appears to be positioned where a previous Lonestar Cell MTN dish was removed and decommissioned by the LTA in August 2012.

Besides that, the LTA is investigating Lonestar on two main counts: one, the LTA’s investigation of Lonestar is to confirm whether the operator received any capacity (connection) from neighboring La Côte d’Ivoire through the decommissioned satellite dish. 

The Lonestar Cell MTN statement, signed by its Corporate Affairs Executive, Dr. Laurence K. Bropleh, insists that it has done nothing wrong so far.  In a carefully worded statement, the operator said it had “written the LTA informing of its intent to reconnect the previously disconnected telecommunications dish,” although it “has not done so as yet.” However, Lonestar says it “acknowledges that the terms of its current International Gateway License issued by the LTA give the company the right to establish satellite and other links with international carriers and networks.” 

To this, LTA’s director of public affairs, Jarsea Burphy, has flatly denied.  “Lonestar only admitted that it had erected the satellite dish in question after LTA found out that it was already up. We are now waiting to conclude our investigation to determine whether the dish was reactivated or not.

“Lonestar Cell MTN notes that a technical team from LTA visited its facility in January, 2015 and observed that there was no traffic between Lonestar Cell MTN and its sister network in La Côte d’Ivoire. To date, there has been no change.”

The other count of the investigation is an allegation that Lonestar is undercutting the price of wholesale bandwidth in the Liberian market, selling one megabyte for US$350, while all other providers are offering this capacity for around US$1,000.  LTA Chairperson Angelique Weeks, in a statement issued Sunday, said that “low prices are certainly desirable, but prices must not be of a predatory nature; thus, an operator may not sell below certain market prices.”  

This question recalls the first count, whether Lonestar used its dish near the Ivorian border to access cheaper bandwidth capacity from the neighboring country, rather than using the capacity of the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) Cable, thereby “undercutting the market”, as LTA suspects. 

To this, Lonestar says that it has, as “a member of the Cable Consortium of Liberia… invested over 2.5 Million United States Dollars in the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) fiber optic to Liberia and is an effective user of same. It is to Lonestar Cell MTN’s advantage to have all its traffic on the fiber optic, which is why Lonestar remains in active negotiations for the usage of the fiber duct.”

“Lonestar Cell MTN, a partner in support of the Government of Liberia’s development agenda will never act in contrary manners that will undermine the government’s agenda,” the operator’s statement said. “Lonestar Cell MTN remains compliant with all of its tax obligations to government and can fathom no reasons while this should ever change.”

LTA insists, however, that Lonestar erected a decommissioned dish without commission, and that said equipment “will be taken down the first week in February to ensure that, pending completion of the investigation, there is no capacity coming from La Côte d’Ivoire.”

In as much as the LTA previously had the dish removed and Lonestar Cell MTN has not received the National Regulator’s authorization to reinstall it, if Lonestar Cell MTN is found to have reconnected the dish or has been receiving data capacity from neighboring La Côte d’Ivoire, this will be a gross regulatory violation with strong punitive consequences. Lonestar Cell MTN has confirmed that the telecommunications dish was indeed reinstalled, but denies that it has reactivated the cross-border connectivity link.

The LTA periodically conducts unannounced fact-finding investigations as part of its regulatory function.  Investigations are carried out by the LTA’s trained technicians and findings remain confidential until thoroughly scrutinized and conclusions adopted by the LTA Board of Commissioners.  “These investigations form part of our sensitive sector surveillance operations and are vital to national security,” Chairperson Weeks noted.

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