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Big Growth, Big Price: The High Cost of Internet in The Gambia

Internet usage has grown tremendously in The Gambia over the past decade. Smartphone penetration has spiked, resulting to the growth of mobile data. Most of the local internet users today access the internet through their phone data. However, affordable internet remains out of reach of many Gambians.

In a country where many people live on hand-to-mouth system, average monthly income spent to purchase mobile data or broadband packages cost more than the entire salaries of a lot of full-time employees. Even those running successful businesses are complaining.

“Internet is the most expensive commodity in the work we do. As a network, we do a lot of live streaming and that requires a lot of internet. Sometimes you wonder if it’s worth paying so much for internet when you expect to pay salaries and make profits,” says Fatou Touray, the CEO of Kerr Fatou, an online media outlet which produces and disseminates different TV programmes online.

“We spend D15,000 a month on  a 4meg dedicated service just for the office. We go out all over the country and we live stream from everywhere. So in total we spend at least D35,000 a month on internet.”

Musa Baldeh, a student at University of The Gambia, relies heavily on the internet for his academic research and other works. “The internet data is very expensive and I can say for all the GSM operators because I use almost all of them,” he says.  “They are all expensive. I think they have to revisit that somehow and PURA has to intervene for them to reduce it for the benefit of students like me and many other people.” 

Musa Baldeh

Being a full time student with no employment, Musa struggles but spends as much as D50 a day to purchase internet data. Multiply that by 12 and you’ll get close to half the monthly salary of some police officers or even teachers. “This hugely affects us academically. It’s too expensive for an ordinary student.”

Momodou Bah, a freelance journalist working for international media outlets, needs regular internet access to get close to news and to disseminate news. But not even his status as a heavyweight journalist with good paycheck exempts him from feeling the heat of high internet cost.

“I use the internet to make sure that I keep up-to-date with the happenings and to file my stories. I’m using an Africell line and normally I will subscribe to the 1.5GB bundle for D259. Even though I use Wi-Fi at work, 1.5GB cannot serve me for two days. Let’s say every two and a half days, I have to subscribe to another 1.5GB. It is really expensive, absolutely expensive,” Bah tells The Chronicle.

Qcell, a service provider started the first 3G network in The Gambia, with the objective of making internet accessible and affordable though mobile data. This was followed by the launch of 4G. With both networks rolling, the price remains high for an ordinary consumer. Qcell’s Senior Marketing Manager, Amie Sise is defensive. “We actually pay a yearly license and maintain fees to the government not in dalasi but in foreign currency. The infrastructure involves in providing these services have to be maintained and it is not that cheap. So all these things have to be considered in order to come up with reasonable pricing.”

According to Amie, Qcell has dropped internet prices for bundles by 25 percent four months ago. “So we are doing everything we have to make data service affordable in this country. But there are other factors that consumers are not aware of, that also affect pricing. At the end of the day obviously if you are doing something, you need to maintain your business as well.”

Qcell headquarters

Africell’s Media Officer, Musa Sise says the quality matches the cost.

“The quality of service comes with price because the internet service you provide is the best in the country and it’s the fastest and all these things cost money. If you want something as good as what we have, with the investment, you have to pay for it and there is no secret about that.”

Despite complaints about the cost, Musa says the quality of the services is keeping and increasing Africell’s customers.

Sulayman Gaye, the Customer Care Supervisor of telecoms service provider, Comium admits that considering the earning of an ordinary Gambian, the cost of internet is still a bit expensive. However, he said the cost of the internet is going down drastically compared to a decade ago.

“The cost of internet at Comium is going down. When we started we were doing installation for free and we happened to get a lot of customers. Now even the tariff we were charging a month is reduced by D500. So the first month payment used to be around D6, 500 including router, monthly subscription of 4 Megs and installation charge. But we’ve reduced the router fee from D2500 to D2000. The first month payment as at last month customers were paying D6, 500 but now we’ve changed it to D6, 000.”

Comium Building along Kairaba Avenue

The Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) is mandated to regulate internet service providers and their services. Matarr Touray, a Senior Economist at the agency says that price reduction in the area of internet tariff has been realized, though affordability remains a challenge which makes it beyond the reach of average Gambian.

“As a country, it is still less than 4000 customers for fixed broad-band internet which gives a penetration rate of 5 percent. That is an indication that people are still averse to making such purchases in the internet. When you look at it at per-capita basis as well for an average Gambian you will see that there is still a lot of work needed to be done towards improving the framework.”

He hails the creation of ACE submarine cable which was launched in 2012 as well as the national fiber backbone towards relieving access cost and the cost of the internet.

“What we have done at PURA’s level is probably unique within Africa. We’ve developed a very comprehensive cost models for both ACE, which is international connectivity and ECOWAN, which is the national fiber backbone. And since that intervention, we have seen for example, ECOWAN, the prices come down to around 72%.”

For Papa Yusupha Njie, the CEO of Unique Solutions, an internet service provider, “with the impending gateway liberalization, amended license regimes, convergence and increased competition in the market we expect better service delivery and pricing responding to the needs of a demanding youthful population who want the same quality of service and affordability that the so called advanced world experience.”

He however cautions that to maintain these low tariffs, PURA and the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology will have to lower the costs of licenses and tariffs to accommodate this growth and support the players in the market.

Spike in smartphone penetration increases internet access

“We are all aware of the billions of dalasis lost in the industry, caused by the former regime’s interference in the sector. It’s a very capital intensive business and the effects of these losses are still with the operators.”

Mam Ndegene Secka contributed to this story.

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