JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN - Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese remained without mobile phone service Friday, as network operator Vivacell continued a standoff with the government over a licensing dispute.
The government cut the network's signal to its roughly 900,000 subscribers just after midnight Tuesday, alleging that Vivacell owed tens of millions of dollars in licensing fees.
The government's information minister, Michael Makuei, told VOA earlier this week that Vivacell previously had been exempted from taxes and licensing fees. "We want them to pay a sum of up to $66 million for their license, and up to now they are dragging their feet," he said.
The licensing fee dispute underscores the mounting financial pressures facing the government in a country ravaged by civil war since late 2013.
Ruling party holds Vivacell stake
Pagan Amum – the former secretary general of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the country's ruling party – said Vivacell already pays for a valid license it has held for years. "There is no way Vivacell can be required to pay for another license," he told VOA's "South Sudan in Focus" radio program on Thursday.
Amum said that, as secretary general, he had helped negotiate the original deal with Lebanon's Fattouch Investment Group – Vivacell's majority owner – giving the SPLM party a minority share in the telecom firm.
Vivacell has operated in South Sudan since 2008 under a license issued to the SPLM, Amum said. He added that, since 2012, the ruling SPLM has received $100,000 a month from Vivacell for licensing fees.
Vivacell officials went to Makuei's office earlier this week in an attempt to negotiate, but he refused a meeting, the firm's managing director, Jesus Antonio Ortiz Olivo, told Reuters on Wednesday.
Makuei, in media interviews this week, has expressed a desire "to reorganize the telecommunications sector."
Low cellphone penetration rate
Mobile phone subscription rates have been falling in South Sudan, and telecom-sector operators "are placing themselves in survival mode and are hoping for a political settlement and a return to some degree of social stability," the telecommunications research site BuddeComm reported in February.
BuddeCom said South Sudan has one of Africa's lowest rates of cellphone penetration, at 21 percent, noting that recovery could bring "potentially many years of strong growth" to the sector.
South Sudan's regulatory Communications Authority estimates the country's entire telecom market – also served by South Africa's MTN and Kuwait's Zain – has fewer than 3 million subscribers, according to Reuters.
Complications for customers, clients
On Wednesday in the capital city, Juba, long lines formed at mobile phone stores where people waited to buy new subscriber identification module (SIM) cards from Vivacell competitors.
Vivacell subscriber Ever Fanusto said the sudden shutdown cut her off from friends and relatives, including those living overseas.
"I used to call my elder brother who is in America and now we have been disconnected with him," Fanusto said. She added that it would be a challenge to retrieve her contacts' information and load it onto a new SIM card.
In a notice published Wednesday, Vivacell informed its subscribers that the company was working with national authorities to resolve the matter and that it hoped to resume business soon in South Sudan. Otherwise, the company said it would set up "a clear mechanism" for reimbursing dealers, retailers and agents for their SIM card stocks.