01.05.2000 Feature Article

The Telecommunications/Telephone War Is On!

The Telecommunications/Telephone War Is On!
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It was one bright and sunny morning in 1992. I remember that a salesperson from the first mobile telephone company in Ghana -- Mobitel -- came to our office to get us hooked onto that mode of communicating with others. Perhaps this guy considered our comparatively "endowed" situation and thought we should be able to afford everything he had with him, and more. On our part, we were enchanted by the ease of communication that his wares offered and the fact that the system would place our key contacts only a phone call away, at least, theoretically. Subconsciously the whole idea seemed extremely desirable in view of the dismal service sold to us by the then Ghana Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (P&T), the sole provider of telephone service in the country at that time. Then came the total cost of what we considered to be what we needed, which I would term "Option-A." A whopping one thousand two hundred and forty United States Dollars! A scaled-down option, ideal for an individual officer (Option-B), required no less than nine hundred in U.S. currency to make it a reality. However, according to an advert in the Daily Graphic newspaper, something similar to Option-B and from the same company, would cost me less than US$170! Now, what happened?

They call it "deregulation," I believe. When the authorities decided, a few years ago, to be smart and open the market up for others to participate, things began to happen. It became clear to us that we did not have to accept the status quo; we could have a choice and influence the way things were done. For entrepreneurs, it was a fantastic opportunity for serious and very lucrative investment. They wasted little time.

The powers-that-be (PTB) knew what this change could mean for the pampered giant -- P&T (for short). Therefore, like a "polygamously-inclined" man who now planned to add other contenders to his "first/senior" and spoilt wife, the PTB first split P&T into Ghana Postal Service and Ghana Telecoms (GT). The PTB ensured that GT was given a very long head-start. A strategic investor was identified and "recruited"; loans were obtained to upgrade GT's old and inefficient systems; regulations were put in place to ensure that GT's position as senior prefect was recognized and protected; and GT was given extra doses of opportunity to enter practically all the lucrative areas before anyone else was ready for them.

After such velvety-soft, pro-GT arrangements were in place, the door was opened about half way. Consumers' hunger for efficient telephone/telecommunication service, coupled with a corresponding burning desire of entrepreneurs to provide the service, created a most exciting telephone/telecommunications war.

Some of the immediate changes were: GT began to extol the virtues/advantages of owning and using telephones. It began to "digitalize" old exchanges and instal others at many new locations. It simplified the process of subscribing to its service, even installing telephones on credit and, recently, at half-price! Now, "Ghana-bii" can walk into a supermarket, buy a phone, plug it into an outlet and start talking; they can bring telephone instruments and accessories home with them from their trips abroad; go to places called "communication centres" to make calls, etc.

No wonder the telecommunication giant, AT&T of the USA, was enticed by the aroma of the progressive environment and she entered the market offering instant connection to the USA and a few other countries in a simplified, user-friendly way. Consumers/customers only needed to use a special code number and a local phone and, presto, they were through! Soon, Sprint followed suit, and added the "novelty" of the prepaid phone card.

For a while, only Mobitel held sway in the mobile phone market, charging whatever it liked and getting away with it. Why? Because "Ghana-mma" were hopelessly in love with the "new" technology which enabled some of them to excitedly and proudly tell others over their mobile phones "I'm talking to you while standing outside in the open" ("megyina abonten na merekasa yi"). The mobile phone became a status symbol -- of importance and wealth; and even of authority as owners/holders gave directions or gestured with them, or simply carried these about in a very conspicuous manner.

Then a second company -- Celltel -- came on-line. The competition warmed up. Sometime later, yet another company -- Space-fon -- came on board with a bang and claims of advanced technology. Spark began to fly. The competition now assumed a new look and became a war of products. Since all three provided similar services, the emphasis was now on how efficient the product was and how good customers felt in using it.

With generous, mutually beneficial assistance from advertising companies, tantalizing offers were made by the mobile telephone service providers. The total cost of enjoying this service began to fall, and has continued to fall. The smart ones among these competitors are utilizing all opportunities to their benefit. I know that one of them, at least, has not hesitated to provide complimentary phones to select institutions/persons. Smart move! Since the recipients would not want to see the phones waste away as if they were mere decorations, but would like to make calls with them, the providers ultimately are reaping huge benefits/profits.

I cannot forget the day I saw two adverts in the Daily Graphic newspaper, one on the left page loudly announcing an attractive offer and wonderful claims of one company, and on the opposite page counter claims and tantalizing offers from a competing company. The war was even brought into the studios of that innovative station -- Vibe-FM.

The war is becoming fiercer. Mama GT herself is gearing up to enter the mobile phone market. (Could this, perhaps, be the reason why the switch which interconnects mobile calls with regular, "land-line" calls is not all that efficient?) Well, the problem could be genuine, arising out of insufficient capacity to accommodate all the calls which "Ghana-fo" want to make every micro-second. Consequently, callers require extraordinary levels of patience as they try to get some calls through. We have heard their recorded messages so many times that we all know them by heart. "Ghana-towo" are so hospitable that we are able to tolerate these and other irritants, and even have fun with them. It is not uncommon to find subscribers intentionally dialing up their own mobile phone numbers only to be told that they had either switched them off or that they were out of service range, while the phones were right in their hands, and on!

Perhaps, by the time GT's mobile service becomes operational, we shall have a much, much larger capacity switch so that the current problem (with only three service providers) may not be complicated further. I am pleading with whoever has gone to town to buy the extra-large-capacity switch to hurry up because we have yet another company -- WesTel -- for real, and "their eyes are super red"! They might take over everything if "Awo" GT does not act fast. WesTel is said to have equipment in place to ameliorate the problem of inter-connecting the mobile service with the regular lines, and vice versa. Wunderbar! Additionally, they are into the regular telephone market, including provision of phone-booths, digital data transfer, etc. As one televangelist usually tells his audience, `something good is going to happen to us.'

I hear a sixth company will soon start operating in Ghana and will offer a wide variety of telephone services, including regular land-line telephone service, such as GT offers. I do not know yet what they will be called. Nevertheless, I say to them, "Woezor," "Awaa awaa atuu," "Akwaaba."

Other forms of telecommunication services are now being enjoyed in Ghana: digital data transfer, paging and voice-mail, etc. There are several paging companies providing service to individuals and organizations. Consequently, the "people" too are able to stay in touch relatively very cheaply. Interestingly, it is far easier to reach the "people" who are on pagers. And, with telephone booths being installed all over the place, they are able to call back if necessary. The "people" thus are able to avoid the temptation of making expensive calls on mobile telephones while still "staying in touch." At least, one commercial bank has linked all its branches so that it is able to offer real-time banking. A tremendous relief to all who do business with them.

The war is on! The competition gets fiercer with each passing day. Meanwhile consumers are basking in its benefits. At least, in this case, it is "a good one there" for deregulation/free-market/open-market policies.

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