A month and a half ago the Post and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ), the country’s telecoms watchdog announced that the board had picked Dr Gift Kallisto Machengete as the regulator’s new Director General.
His appointment finally placed someone in the driver’s seat of one of the most influential entities in local technology after years and a string of temporary appointments made to fill the post.
According to POTRAZ, Dr Machengete officially assumed duties on the 1st of December 2016. He now faces the task of consolidating all the efforts that POTRAZ has been making to “create a level playing field” in Zimbabwean telecoms.
This means playing an important role in ensuring that Zimbabweans get the best service from providers while offering the best environment for the same providers to deliver this type of service.
While POTRAZ has its own broad definition of what its role is as a regulator along with a breakdown of the duties and responsibilities of the Director General, we have listed just 5 areas that the new Director General will hopefully address.
Reducing the cost of Internet
A lot of noise has already been made about the high tariffs associated with internet access in Zimbabwe. With the majority of internet connections made via mobile devices and mobile operators charging subscribers $1 for just 6.6 MB of data,the narrative on Zimbabwean broadband access in 2016 still points to a utility that’s still priced as a privileged service to many.
While some folks (especially mobile network operators) might argue that products like WhatsApp and Facebook bundles plus Dollar a Day deals have made the internet more accessible, the reality is that these are workarounds that only prolong the tough discussion that POTRAZ needs to have with all broadband providers to work on a schedule for the reduction of internet prices.
The good news is that some of the steps to make internet access cheaper have been taken through contested plays like infrastructure sharing which will hopefully result in the savings in telecoms services rollout being passed to the subscribers.
Other issues like enforcing net neutrality – which calls for equal pricing for all services delivered through the internet – also need to be taken into consideration as this creates a need for fair pricing in the first place.
The Director General is best placed to champion the entire debate on internet pricing, reinforcing these initiatives that make it possible to eventually have cheaper access to all forms of broadband.
Tougher implementation of Quality of Service regulations
There was a bit of optimism around a set of Quality of Services (QoS) regulations that POTRAZ unveiled in the first part of 2016. These regulations were supported by QoS software that POTRAZ also acquired this year to ensure effective monitoring of service delivery.
For the first time, the regulator has a set of standards, enforced by law, that compelled all service providers to deliver services of a certain quality, something that meant protection for the consumer.
However, despite the new rules and the mechanism to monitor all service providers, there are still several cases of unsatisfactory service delivery from providers in mobile and fixed telecoms through cases like disappearing airtime, poor call connection and a loss of service that isn’t followed up with any compensation to subscribers.
This is either because service providers have been given a lot more wiggle room for deficiencies in service quality or the regulator hasn’t been enforcing the regulations as strongly as it should.
The only way these regulations can reign in unfair practices that infringe on service quality is if the regulator makes it clear, through action (it could be penal) taken to show that the QoS regulations aren’t just an ineffective set of rules.
Introducing mobile number portability
Number portability, the system that allows subscribers to easily drop their service provider and adopt a new one while maintaining their phone number hasn’t been adopted in Zimbabwe despite the numerous discussions around its effectiveness in encouraging competition and POTRAZ announcing its implementation years ago.
While it’s easy to speculate on why this issue hasn’t been resolved up to now and there can be several debates on whether or not it’s a priority, the bottom line is that POTRAZ, in the interest of providing Zimbabwean mobile subscribers with greater access to alternatives should have acted on this ages ago.
Hopefully, this issue will become another action point for the new POTRAZ boss.
Lobbying for cheaper access to mobile devices
Between 2009 and 2014 the Zimbabwean government suspended all duties and import tariffs on mobile devices and computers as part of a plan to encourage the growth of access to ICT locally.
The move, supported by a newly adopted multi-currency regime and an economic upswing resulted in a sharp increase in mobile penetration which now stands at over 100%.
The suspension of ICT duties and taxes was lifted in 2014 as the cash-strapped government looked for more revenue streams.
However, there hasn’t been any visible lobby to reinstate the suspension of duty on the import of internet ready mobile devices. Citizens’ calls for something like that would likely face stiff resistance from the Ministry of Finance but as the body in charge of telecoms, POTRAZ could influence policy in this area significantly.
After all, a reduction of duty on smartphones would likely go a long way in boosting internet access, something that benefits telecoms providers and ultimately the national treasury through increased revenue made through broadband access. There are also the numerous benefits that are associated with improving internet access among Zimbabweans.
It’s fair to assume that there is likely going to be a lot of resistance from the finance ministry, but the best-placed entity to make a case for cheaper device access is POTRAZ.
Making good use of the USF
The Universal Services Fund is a financial resource pool mobilised and handed by POTRAZ. It consists of annual fees paid by telecoms operators and it is meant to extend communication to parts of Zimbabwe that telecoms operators are usually not keen on investing in.
Despite its noble intentions and some cases of its implementation, the work of the USF has been generally shrouded in mystery, something that has prompted one of its contributors, Econet Wireless to even seek legal recourse in the disclosure of its books.
If harnessed appropriately the USF could be what’s need to introduce marginalised communities to modern communication services and to stand as the pillar of support for all initiatives around internet services in Zimbabwe.
After all, it’s this same potential that led the Ministry of ICT to extend USF functionality towards the National Innovation Fund.
With any luck, the new POTRAZ boss will push for better use of the fund (other than broadcast digitisation) and make some difference in the parts of Zimbabwe that aren’t connected.
These are just 5 areas that POTRAZ and its new Director General can tackle. There are several other areas that could be looked into. Please feel free to add in the comments below.