Service providers in Sierra Leone are protesting the government's move to close them, following allegations that they have failed to meet a Dec. 16 deadline to pay fees related to the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) fiber-optic network, managed in the country by the Sierra Leone Cable Company (SALCAB).

The service providers say the government has breached agreements regarding the program, and are threatening to seek international arbitration.

SALCAB Managing Director Mohammed Sheriff said Afcom, LimeLine and Africell Sierra Leone had been using SALCAB's services for free since its introduction in mid-2013, whereas they were required to pay US$10,000 per month.

SALCAB paid $500,000 on behalf of the service providers to the ACE consortium, Sheriff said. The ACE consortium built and manages the ACE undersea cable system, which connects Europe to points in Africa. Outstanding fees of $184,000 are due to ACE, Sheriff said.

SALCAB collects fees from service providers in Sierra Leone and in turn pays ACE for use of the cable system. The SALCAB program charges ISPs $200 per 1Mbps, which, Sheriff said, is far less than the more than $2,000 per 1Mbps they were paying for using satellite transmission and also the lowest fee in West Africa. Sheriff cited Liberia, which he said charges $500 per 1Mbps; Guinea and Gambia, which charge $300 to $400; and Ghana, which charges $230.

Meanwhile, Afcom, LimeLine and Africell have denied any wrongdoing, and have accused the government of changing earlier promises contained in agreements they signed with former Minister of Communication Ibrahim Kargbo in 2012.

They said when the current minister Alpha Kanu took office last July, he scrapped the arrangements as invalid and informed the service providers that they were no longer shareholders in SALCAB, removed them from SALCAB's board and took over a bank account containing about $700,000 of service provider funds.

The service providers said in a statement that the initial agreements called for the operators to appoint members of SALCAB's board of directors, who would take over the responsibility of managing the ACE landing station in Sierra Leone, including the payment of $1 million for operational costs between January and July.

"Not only have the ministry and SALCAB backed out of the agreement, which the World Bank approved and which had cabinet approval, but the ministry now wants to turn SALCAB into a profit making company and is demanding extortionate fees for the operators to use their own internet connection on ACE," the service provider statement said.

"The managing director of SALCAB has sent out demands for payment to each operator of $31,000 per month for each STM-1. Under the signed agreements, each operator owns 5xSTM-1 and with a planned upgrade next year which will increase it to nearly 10xSTM-1," the operators claimed. "Clearly, the operators have no way of absorbing these exorbitant increases and the only result is that internet would be more expensive for the people of Sierra Leone."

They claimed none of the ISPs in the country has paid the new charges, yet the ministry has chosen to disconnect only some of them.

But according to a statement from Deputy Information Minister Theo Nicol, five of the nine ISPs using the ACE systems have paid the charges. Since that statement was made, a sixth company, Iptel, has taken the necessary steps to conform to government rules.

Nicol also noted that SALCAB was initially a nonprofit model but that the minister had seen the need to change to a profit-making model, a plan that is close to getting cabinet approval, and so the initial agreement was suspended.

Nicol said operators were getting the service almost for free while the government was paying a huge sum to the ACE consortium.

LimeLine Managing Director Foday Sankoh said the company would not fill out new forms or respect the new terms and conditions, insisting the previous agreement must be respected. He accused the government of not prioritizing the needs of users and the information ministry of encouraging unbalanced competition by favoring certain ISPs, Sierra WiFi in particular, which he claimed has been operating in the country unlicensed. Investigations related to the charges that Sankoh leveled against Sierra WiFi are ongoing.