In 2017, ECOWAS introduced roaming regulations aimed at standardizing roaming activities across the community’s public mobile communication networks. These regulations sought to eliminate roaming surcharges and simplify cross-border mobile phone usage. The ultimate goal was to streamline mobile communications within the region. However, the implementation has faced various challenges, including high call termination rates, a lack of direct links between telecom operators, and fraud.

Recently, the telecommunications regulatory bodies of Liberia and Ghana reveled they had begun discussions to establish free roaming services between the two countries. According to the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA), this is a significant step towards enabling mobile phone users to enjoy local rates while visiting either country. This move builds upon a previous directive the Liberia Telecommunications Authority’s (LTA) gave Liberian mobile network operators in 2020 to adhere to ECOWAS regulations. Despite this directive, progress has been sluggish due to limited bilateral engagements and a lack of momentum in activation efforts. However, this new initiative with Ghana seeks to overcome these hurdles and advance the goals set by ECOWAS.

The primary objective of the free-roaming initiative is to facilitate seamless cross-border communication by allowing mobile phone users to pay local rates for cross-border communication. However, for both countries, entering a free-roaming arrangement would not only reduce communication costs for consumers but also enhance economic cooperation. In 2020, mobile technologies and services generated more than $130 billion of economic value added (8% of GDP) in Sub-Saharan Africa. Studies from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reveal that lowering roaming charges can increase overall mobile usage, stimulate economic activities, and enhance productivity. For instance, in the European Union (EU), the abolition of roaming charges contributed to a 17% increase in cross-border business activities. Moreover, enhanced connectivity can facilitate better access to services such as mobile banking, e-learning, and telemedicine, which are crucial for socio-economic development in West Africa.

Currently, a significant portion of subscribers rely on Internet-based applications such as WhatsApp, Messenger, and Telegram for cross-border communication between Liberia and Ghana. A Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA), report reveals that 58% of mobile users in West Africa use internet-based apps for international communication. These apps require users to have smartphones and active data plans. Travelers often resort to purchasing local SIM cards upon arrival to avoid high roaming charges, either buying voice credits for traditional calls or activating data for internet-based calls. According to the EU, the reduction of roaming charges in the European Union led to a 457% increase in data usage among travelers. However, if Liberia and Ghana reach an agreement, it will require commercial solutions from telecom carriers to facilitate cost-effective implementation. This would involve adjusting existing infrastructure and pricing models to comply with ECOWAS guidelines.

In recent months, more ECOWAS member states have made strides towards similar agreements. In April 2024, Ghana and Benin agreed to implement free roaming services, aiming to reduce communication costs for travelers. That same month saw Niger and Togo announce plans for a bilateral free-roaming partnership. Also, in October 2023, Benin and Togo signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to enable free international mobile network roaming. The Executive Secretary of the West Africa Telecommunications Regulators Assembly (WATRA), Aliyu Yusuf Aboki, noted that 13 ECOWAS member states have amended their telecom legislation to exempt roaming surcharges. Mobile technologies and services are projected to contribute $155 billion to the Sub-Saharan Africa GDP by 2025. As more ECOWAS member states embrace free-roaming, the region stands to benefit from enhanced integration, increased economic activities, and improved access to essential services.

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