HARARE – Zimbabwe’s telecoms regulator has come under fire for hiking mobile data tariffs by over 100 percent, making access to Internet and social media unaffordable for most citizens.
By Gift Phiri
Stakeholders described the move as “digital terrorism” and called on the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (Potraz) to reverse it to conduct further consultations.
Yesterday, Potraz announced that with immediate effect, the cheapest bundle of data, or 5MB, costs 50 cents. A $1 will buy only 10MB and the highest amount of data at 2,5GB now costs $50.
Already, Zimbabwe’s data tariffs were among the highest in the region, with a gig of data averaging $30 compared to $5 in neighbouring South Africa.
In some countries, data is actually free.
As for social media bundles — WhatsApp and Facebook — the cheapest bundle is now set at 50 cents for 10MB of data while $2,50 will buy 80MB.
The increase flies in the face of declarations by Potraz chairman, Ozias Bvute, who told a seminar on innovation last year that it was engaging Internet service providers to make mobile data affordable.
In justifying the sharp hike, Potraz director-general Gift Machengete said Zimbabwe, being a landlocked country, has no cable landing stations and has to access submarine cables through third party countries, making access to international bandwidth much more expensive.
ICT minister, Supa Mandiwanzira, said on Twitter: “I’m on leave until Jan 30 & out of the country since Boxing Day. On return to work, I will get to the bottom of it.”
However, the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa-Zimbabwe) called on Potraz to reconsider the directive and conduct further consultations on an ideal pricing structure that will ensure there is balance between citizens’ rights and business interests.
“In making this call, Misa-Zimbabwe is cognisant of Potraz’s mandate to promote competitive, affordable and accessible telecommunications services by guaranteeing and protecting the interests of all stakeholder groups, despite their competing interests,” Nyasha Nyakunu, the press freedom group’s programmes coordinator, said.
He said the latest move, while cast as aimed at addressing revenue challenges for Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), will in effect inhibit the majority of Zimbabweans’ access and activity on the Internet, especially the very popular social media platforms due to high costs.
“In turn, this will impact on the profit margins of MNOs due to the shrinkage of the Internet subscription base,” Nyakunu said.
Zimbabwe has three MNOs, Econet Wireless, Zimbabwe’s largest mobile phone operator; Telecel, taken over in December by government from Amsterdam-based mobile operator Vimpelcom, and government-owned NetOne.
Zenzele Ndebele, a digital media expert, said on micro blogging site Twitter: “What was done by @Potraz_zw is digital terrorism. Revenues will decline spectacularly.”
This comes as mobile data brought wireless carriers more revenue than voice calls did for the last quarter, a milestone for the industry as faster network speeds are prompting Zimbabweans to consume, and pay for more data than ever.
Mobile data service revenue reached $194 million in the third quarter of 2016, an increase of more than 20 percent, according to a third quarter report by the Potraz.
In the previous quarter, only $161,5 million was earned.
Chairman for Zimbabwe Institution of Engineering, Information and Communication Technology Division (Zict), engineer Jacob Kudzayi Mutisi, said with more use of social Apps, WhatsApp, email, over-the-top voice services, it was plausible that the telecoms regulator would capitalise on the Internet revolution.
“If you look around the world, data is free,” Mutisi said.
“Potraz want to make a bit of cash. It’s a way of getting some money. The general public can challenge that.”
The hike comes after so-called ‘‘Shutdown Zimbabwe’’ protests in July last year were met with Internet blackouts and arrests.
Perhaps the most important dissident leader, cleric Evan Mawarire and other pressure groups helped bring tens of thousands of people onto the streets using social media in a rare civilian-led demonstration promoted with hashtags #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka, and described by many as the most subversive movement in Zimbabwe’s recent history.
Rights groups are seeking to implore Potraz to take into consideration the feelings of the consumers and suspend the new price floor. – Daily News