Lonestar, Cellcom Battle over 3-day Free Calls

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What has been a long-standing rivalry between Liberia’s two biggest telecom operators has reached a new kind of ugly, with competitors trading names amid allegations. Lonestar Cell MTN accuses its arch-rival, Cellcom/Orange, of “criminal, unscrupulous business practice”, while Cellcom retorts, calling Lonestar a “cry baby”.

It all started over the weekend when Lonestar subscribers noticed that they were receiving promotional SMS messages from Cellcom’s own three-day free calls service. This, obviously startled many Lonestar subscribers, prompting the aggrieved operator to issue a public statement followed by a formal complaint.

Both companies use the *143# code to operate a three-day free calls service to subscribers within their respective networks.

Lonestar Cell MTN said in a release yesterday that Cellcom/Orange has been using its *143# service to send out messages to all Lonestar subscribers; an act the company says is “illegal” and undermines its own three days free calls service.

When asked how Cellcom gained access to Lonestar’s subscribers Zenu Miller, Lonestar/MTN’s corporate communication officer, said “Cellcom needs to tell the LTA and our subscribers how they got access to our subscribers’ numbers.”

Mr. Miller however explained that all cellular companies have interconnectivity channels that enable subscribers of each network to access other networks through voice and SMS services. “It is this interconnectivity channel that Cellcom is using to send messages to our subscribers,” he said. “They know that this is illegal and they are still doing it,” Miller said, reiterating a call for a thorough investigation from the LTA.

Cellcom appears ready for a fight. “Everybody knows that the Lonestar/MTN’s 3 days free calls program has always been nonexistent,” said Dr. Kimmie L. Weeks,corporate communications strategist for Cellcom/Orange, in an email response to Lonestar’s allegations. “Either they have offered it to only a few customers, they have cancelled it many times, or now they are blaming us for their failure to be able to support the program on their network.”

Louis Roberts, Lonestar’s deputy CEO, accused Cellcom of also deliberately congesting the three-day free calls service to prevent his company’s subscribers from accessing the promotion.

Mr. Roberts added that the move has also been causing a mobile traffic jam, preventing Lonestar subscribers from freely making calls and accessing other services. He said Cellcom is trying to project itself as the only company that operates a three days free calling service. He described Cellcom’s action as “criminal” and wants all Lonestar customers to ignore what he calls an unfriendly and dubious business practice.

Miller says Lonestar, being a law-abiding institution, submitted a formal complaint of the matter to the Liberia Telecommunications Authority yesterday, while pursuing other legal options.

“We want the LTA, as the regulator, to intervene into this matter and probe it accordingly. This is unacceptable,” Miller said.

“Lonestar is a big cry baby, bent on exploiting the Liberian people,” Weeks said. “They feel terrible that Cellcom as a company is offering low tariffs that is intended to provide savings for the Liberian people while they (Lonestar/MTN) want to continue to raise prices. We as a company have decided that we will not be a GSM network that exploits the Liberian people, that’s why we continue to offer low rates and Lonestar/MTN is simply mad because they want to continue to exploit Liberians while Cellcom does not accept or agree to that.” Weeks called the press release issued by Lonestar Cell MTN “a last ditch effort to smear Cellcom’s successful 3 days free calls program when Lonestar has failed miserably to provide a similar service.”

History, strings attached?

Lonestar goes further to suggest some level of political motivation behind Cellcom’s alleged action.

“The political leader of the All Liberian Party (ALP), Benoni Urey, is the chairman of the board of Lonestar Cell MTN and it is not clear whether the action of Cellcom/Orange is intended to deliberately and maliciously portray him in a negative way,” the Lonestar press release noted.

“Cellcom/Orange has deep linkage with the Liberia Shipping & Corporate Registry, LISCR headed by Mr. Yoram Cohen and it remains to be seen whether he played any part in this,” the release added.

Cellcom responds: “Lonestar has since its inception in Liberia set an agenda to charge the Liberian people high and unacceptable rates. When they first came to Liberia, they were charging people as high as US$65 for SIM cards and credits. We broke that price hike by significantly reducing the cost of sim cards to $1 and scratch cards to US$5. We are continuing to drive toward lower rates in the interest of Liberian people and that has Lonestar/MTN frustrated.”

Meanwhile, Roberts says this is not the first time that Lonestar Cell MTN has complained about unfair business practice by Cellcom. Few months ago, he recalled, Lonestar raised alarm over Cellcom’s decision to abuse the three days free calls service by adjusting its promotion to five days.

“This was how the LTA, as the regulator, intervened and compelled Cellcom to return to the traditional and original three days free calls service,” Roberts noted.

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