Airtel is threatening to end a five-year agreement for management of its African operations with Ericsson if poor quality of network service on both voice and data persists in its Sierra Leone network.

Ericsson's contract for management of Airtel's mobile networks will be terminated within 90 days if improvements are not made to the Sierra Leone operation, confirmed Gerald Cole, Airtel's legal and regulatory manager in the country.

The threat comes in the wake of a 21-day ultimatum slammed on Airtel by Sierra Leone's telecom regulatory body, NATCOM, earlier this month, warning the mobile provider to improve services or risk the suspension of its operating license.

The issue of poor network services has been a major problem for many subscribers in several parts of Africa. Some African countries have penalized service providers with fines, others have introduced mobile number portability and threatened license suspension. Tanzania has even threatened jail terms in a bid to encourage improved services.

Regulatory bodies on the continent cite, in most cases, insufficient spectrum allocation, the mountainous nature of some localities, unstable electricity supply, equipment theft, poor road networks and high overhead costs.  

According to Cole, the deadline given to Ericsson will expire at the end of June, right after NATCOM's 21-day ultimatum for Airtel is due to expire, on June 4.

NATCOM Chairman Siray Timbo has said that Airtel's suspension would not be automatic but would follow a process, in case Airtel fails to meet targeted service levels.

Though Cole apologized to Airtel's customers for the recent cases of poor network service, he added the company has issues with the regulator. He said NATCOM had not carried out a proper customer survey but had "a subjective means of assessing the network." Hence, he called for a joint task force to do an assessment using established global standards.