Ahead of the July 5 set date for the full liberalization of Sierra Leone's international gateway and the revision of the country's telecom law, Sierratel's chairman has warned that the deregulation could lead to the shuttering of the government-owned institution.

Addressing the Parliamentary Oversight Committee on Information recently, Tom Kargbo said Sierratel is grappling with several problems, including difficulty paying staff as well as incessant cable theft. Liberalization of the international gateway would deprive Sierratel of the US$150,000 in gateway services revenue it generates monthly and compound the telco's problems, Kargbo said.

He added that financial constraints have necessitated Sierratel's plan to cut staff from 643 to less than 200. Sierratel has had monopoly control of the international gateway and provided gateway services to other telcos such as Sierra Leone's three major GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) providers -- Airtel, Africell and Comium -- as well as ISPs (Internet service providers).

The liberalization of the country's gateway is one of the conditions set by the World Bank for Sierra Leone's participation in the consortium of 23 countries that would connect to Europe via the ACE (Africa Coast to Europe) 17,000-kilometer fiber cable between France and South Africa.

The communications network would be the first submarine cable to land in Sierra Leone and other African countries such as The Gambia, Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Mauritania and Sao Tomé & Principe.

In its release of the gateway deregulation timeline in January, the government stated that liberalization will safeguard open competition in the distribution of access to the ACE capacity, which is expected to be operational before the end of the year.