George K. Fahnbulleh

Ideas and Opinions...

In Liberia: Engineering the Failure of LIBTELCO

This article was written by George K. Fahnbulleh and Omar Fahnbulleh

The Liberian government recently announced a policy wherein the government would roll the cost of government official's communications into their salaries.  While this policy has been greeted with cheers by the people of Liberia, this writer believes there is something much more dubious afoot:  the deliberate bankrupting of LIBTELCO thru a series of seeming innocuous policies which I will detail.

To get the fiber optic cable here, we spent about 25 millions under a private-public venture called the Cable Consortium of Liberia. We have a problem; we don't have the required infrastructure to the get the cable operational. We need about 7 million dollars to get it going and we have not been able to get Government funding and this is why the connection process is slow. But we are making efforts to get banks to fund the project. At the moment we moving small small. ~ Paul Muah, Deputy Managing Director LIBTELCO 

The gains for the government and people of Liberia, with the implementation of high speed internet connectivity, in terms of increased efficiencies, communications, accountability, education, health are on a scale of orders of magnitude.  It is mind boggling to us, why the government would allow this entity to struggle when it is the entity which was built for exactly this function.

As we examine the latest policy, we realize the civil war destroyed the telephone line infrastructure in Liberia. However, in today's communications, most telephone traffic is no longer analog, but digital in the form of VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) transmitted via fiber optic cables.  This is the same fiber optic infrastructure LIBTELCO is struggling to raise money to construct. 

If the Infrastructure is built efficiently LIBTELCO could offer the Government and it Para-statals (IE. Central Bank, GSA, LPRC, NOCAL) and others, VOIP, VIDEO, DATA, Storage and Cloud based services from it’s current Data Centers.  With Liberia not having an abundance of qualified ICT professionals, the government should make a concerted effort to leverage LIBTELCO's expertise in providing these services. 

In Liberia, government offices do not have desktop phones, instead the government spends quite a bit of money annually to provide telephone service, by paying for "telephone scratch cards."  This means ALL GOVERNMENT BUSINESS, is conducted via private cell phones.  We had hoped this would be a temporary solution to the absence of the land line infrastructure.  With the coming of the fiber optic cable, we had hoped, the government, led by the Minister of Finance, a man with an Information Technology background, would have made this a top priority.

It should have been common and accepted knowledge, that the Government of Liberia, would have been the largest initial purchaser of services from LIBTELCO for desktop telephony, computer network communications (for operations health and education), data center services (the Ministry of Finance's IFMIS is currently hosted at the LIBTELCO data center).  However, the government has done all it can, to pull the rug from under this entity, and refuse to purchase the services only this company can offer.

The following government entities all have a need for massive data transportation and storage services:

  1. Central Bank of Liberia (this entity has diverted government funds to construct its own data center in Virginia).  Every service provided by this CBL data center, is currently available at the LIBTELCO data center.  As a matter of fact, any and all high speed internet service to the CBL data center can only come from LIBTELCO.
  2. NASSCorp (this entity is building its own data center)
  3. National Archives is currently building a massive database of digitized property records
  4. NOCAL has a need to provide secure managed data storage and transmission with its international partners
  5. GSA - Asset Management and Tracking Services Hosted at LIBTELCO
  6. National Security Apparatus
  7. Education - distance learning, record keeping etc
  8. Health - the ability to bring medical professionals to the desktop to assist Liberian medical providers.

The annual purchase of the services required to sustain the above needs, would far exceed what LIBTELCO needs to build out its infrastructure.  The argument cannot be made that there is no money, when you have at least two entities (Central Bank of Liberia and NASSCorp) duplicating the physical infrastructure and service offerings of LIBTELCO to the tune of several million dollars.

There is no argument any competent ITC professional can make, as to why the Central Bank of Liberia would undertake the extension of the fiber optic cable to Virginia or why NASSCorp would extend same to Red Light, and undergo the expense of providing triple redundancy for power, when all of the capacity and capability needed is already IN PLACE at LIBTELCO.

There is no argument any competent ITC professional can make, as to why the Central Bank of Liberia would undertake the extension of the fiber optic cable to Virginia or why NASSCorp would extend same to Red Light, and undergo the expense of providing triple redundancy for power, when all of the capacity and capability needed is already IN PLACE at LIBTELCO.  When taken into to consideration with the severe financial constraints facing the government, and LIBTELCO, one can only wonder what these folks are up to. 

One can only hope, the intent is not to bankrupt the company and sell it of to private "investors" for pennies on the dollar; but I am hard pressed to accept that the above confluence is simply a misadventure of the keystone cops.  There are too many smart people in this government, for the deliberate and willful ignoring of LIBTELCO.  Ralph Ellison wrote: "I am an invisible man, not because people cannot see me, but because they refuse to see me." LIBTELCO is the Liberian Government's "Invisible man."

The Way Forward

What is required is a UNIFIED NATIONAL COMMUNICATIONS AND TECHNOLOGY POLICY, which would drive the implementation and adoption of a single government wide strategy. We had hoped by now such a policy, which would put all of the communications and computing initiatives under a single budget line item, and a single management agency would have been done by now.

The Bureau of Data Processing currently under GSA, is the statutory agency RESPONSIBLE FOR ALL DATA PROCESSING SYSTEMS WITHIN THE GOVERNMENT OF LIBERIA.  This Bureau should immediately be seconded to the Office of the President, while legislation is drafted and passed to create the Bureau of Information Technology, headed by a cabinet level Director the Chief Technology Officer.

This BIT and it's predecessor will be THE SOLE ENTITY responsible for ALL, YES all computer and telecommunications systems within the government.  This will remove the IT decisions from people in Ministries, who decide whether or not to spend their budgetary allotment on internet services.

It is time to do better.