THE Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) has submitted a draft proposal for infrastructure sharing among telecommunications operators in the country to the Minister of Information Communication and Technology, Supa Mandiwanzira.
In July, Mandiwanzira issued a 90-day ultimatum for telecommunications operators to adopt an infrastructure sharing framework, a directive that was however, not well-received by the country’s largest mobile operator, Econet Wireless Zimbabwe.
The infrastructure sharing proposal, if approved, would form the bedrock of government policy, which has taken a keen interest in the telecoms sector, as technology becomes an integral part of the country’s economy.
Baxton Sirewu, Potraz’s acting director general, told the Financial Gazette recently that: “It is now outside our control. We have submitted the draft document to the Minister. He is then now taking over and will give directions on how to proceed further.
Econet is heavily invested in infrastructure across the country with nearly US$125 million spent this year alone on infrastructure expansion. The company indicated that the directive to force infrastructure sharing would prejudice its operations.
“It is a disguised, unconstitutional form of compulsory acquisition of our infrastructure,” it said earlier this year in a press statement.
The mobile operator enjoys 70 percent of market share in the telecoms sector, with industry observers saying the infrastructure sharing proposal would most likely result in competition eating into Econet’s customer base.
The 90-day government ultimatum for infrastructure sharing expires on Monday. It had appeared as if the framework for infrastructure sharing would not be reached, after Econet pulled out of the talks last month.
Econet’s pullout raised fears of a possible showdown between the telecoms giant and Mandiwanzira, who had warned earlier that he would not hesitate to revoke the operating licences of errant operators.
The draft proposal by Potraz, which the Financial Gazette has seen, among other things indicates that the authority retains the power to force infrastructure sharing, if an infrastructure provider and an infrastructure seeker failed to find common ground.
“No infrastructure provider shall decline a request to share unless he or she satisfies the authority that such sharing is technically not feasible, is not economically viable and prevents the infrastructure provider from fulfilling their own requirements in terms of service provision,” reads the Potraz draft proposal.
In addition, no telecoms licence holder, according to the draft, is allowed to “obstruct or delay negotiations, refuse to designate proper representation to take part in negotiations, refuse to provide relevant information and misrepresent facts”.
Econet refused to comment on the Potraz draft when contacted last week.
However, an official at Econet who spoke confidentially said the entire infrastructure sharing proposal was meant to give NetOne access to Econet’s infrastructure in order to accommodate equipment it had received from China.
The State-owned NetOne, currently the second largest mobile operator in the country, is on the cusp of launching its 4G technology expected to increase its subscriber base and help turn around its fledgling financial fortunes.
“Econet has contributed over US$60 million into an infrastructure sharing fund called the Universal Service Fund. This money has never been used for the purpose prescribed by Parliament, which included rural coverage. Just the money contributed by Econet alone should have built over 350 rural base stations for use by all operators. We have information that some of the operators have never contributed to this fund as was required by law,” said the Econet executive.
The Universal Service Fund (USF) was established to provide funding for extending communication networks to reach marginalised communities in rural areas throughout the country.
The USF was intended to provide basic access to voice and postal services to all irrespective of their geographical location.
“This is a flagship of the fund hence the concerted drive to install shared passive base station infrastructure throughout Zimbabwe. Over and above this the USF also supports the provision of backhaul transmission network to rural ICT centres at post offices, post buses and mobile internet connectivity for rural schools. This speeds up network roll out to cover the entire country,” said Potraz about the fund. – Fingaz