Gambia has joined a growing number of African countries that have opened up their international gateways in a bid to improve the provision of data services in the country.

The awarding of international data-transmission licenses will allow mobile phone operators to provide international data gateway services, although voice gateway licenses remain closed to private operators.

Seven operators in Gambia including Gamcel, Africell, Qcell and the Gambia Telecommunication Co. Ltd. (Gamtel) have been given licenses to operate international data gateways.

Operators in the region have been forced to compete more aggressively on the provision of data services for revenue because of the flattening growth curve in voice communication in the region's more mature markets.

Gambian Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure Grey Johnson said the Gambian government has given out the licenses in recognition of a public and private partnership initiative. The initiative, the Gambian government said, has already resulted in the signing of a consortium agreement that culminated in the incorporation of the Gambia Submarine Cable Co., which operates an undersea cable.

The liberalization of international data gateway services, operators say, will help make the services more affordable for the public.

Unlike in other African countries, Johnson said, "the Gambian government was exceedingly slow in giving out the licenses."

Several African countries including Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria have already given out both international data and voice communication licenses to private operators in order to develop the telecom sector and to bring down the cost of communications.

The Gambian government has promised that it will soon give out international gateway licenses for voice communication to private operators. As in other countries in the region, the Gambian government is reluctant to open up the international gateways for voice communication in order to protect the incumbent, Gamtel, from competition by technologically advanced and financially strong private operators.

Private operators pay gateway fees to Gamtel. This has resulted in unfair competition, with private service operators charging their customers exorbitantly in a bid to make profit and sustain their operations.

In its 2011 financial report in November last year, Gamtel said it made a profit of 1.450 million Gambian dalasi (US$44 million) despite using obsolete equipment.

"Not only is the international gateway being opened in Gambia but in most countries in Africa because most governments have realized that the continued closing up of the gateways to protect the incumbents was a huge cost to poor subscribers that pay highly for services," said Amos Kalunga, telecom analyst at the Computer Society of Zambia.

The Gambian government has not revealed how much it charged the operators for the international data gateway licenses. But in Zambia, Uganda and Kenya, international gateway fees are pegged at $12 million, $50,000 and $214,000, respectively.