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Are We Any Closer To Universal Internet Access In Zimbabwe?

The Pioneers of the Internet may have had early imaginings of what their contributions would do to change global communication. They couldn’t however have imagined the scope and scale their work would reach. In the second decade of the 21st century it’s anyone’s guess why the internet hasn’t yet been classified as a public utility.

The importance of the internet is something that is impossible to properly caption. It means so very many different things to so many people. A service at first, and erroneously, thought as an elitist service quickly became a necessity.

Africa’s access to this platform has been slow and gradual. According to Internet World Statistics in 2019 Internet penetration in Africa was 39.3%. Internet growth in Africa from 2000 to 2020 is 11.567%. These figures are, of course, averages of the different growth rates across the continent.

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The numbers are low. Primarily because of the cost, the threshold to enjoy all of what the internet has to offer is behind very large fees in comparison to income. The availability (or unavailability more accurately) of reliable connection outside large cities and towns is another factor hindering the reach of the internet in Africa.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa last week released a report titled Digital Rights Literacy in Southern Africa. The full report covering Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe can be found here. For this article we are going to look at their coverage and findings regarding affordability and availability in Zimbabwe.

Digital Landscape

“According to the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (POTRAZ), Zimbabwe’s mobile penetration stands at 93.1 percent, while the International Telecommunication Union (2019) pegs the internet
penetration at 27 percent based on 2017 data. Internet access remains low in the country mainly because of limited infrastructure, especially in rural areas, where the majority of Zimbabweans are located. Internet penetration rate in the rural areas stands at only 10 percent (Freedom House 2019)”

MISA Digital Rights Literacy Report

The fluctuation of cell service when leaving a city or town is something we have all experienced. This isn’t to say things haven’t shown some improvement from a decade ago. There are places where the best one can get is Edge. It’s woefully slow.

Many now do things like banking online which is honestly a nightmare with little to no reception. Mobile transactions like Ecocash for example need stable cell service to complete and this creates long waits and zigzagging to catch a bar.

It doesn’t look like there is going to be an improvement to give those outside the cities the same service as those in the cities at least it’s not going to happen fast enough.

What is being done to increase access?

POTRAZ has been working towards the establishment of the Community Information Centres geared towards the promotion of internet access
to the marginalized communities (Ministry of ICT and Cyber Security, 2019). This project if spread across the country would result in access
to the internet and the advancement of right to information on the internet. Freedom House (2019) pointed out that the Ministry of ICT indicated that about 87 Information Centres were functional across the country

The state of the CICs (Community Information Centres) was covered already. A quick refresher, the Ministry of ICTs handed over the project to ZimPost. Of the 210 proposed, 170 have been commissioned, 107 are operational and a further 40 planned for this year. Of those ‘operational’ its unclear which ones are actually working.

Affordability

The cost of internet bundles is one that has been reported here a number of times. With the worsening economic situation these prices keep going up and more people can’t afford to pay for bundles.

“The cost of 1GB is likely to be 10 percent of the G.N.I per capita however, a steady income is not guaranteed. This makes it five times more than the indicated affordability rate of 1GB of 2 percent
per income (A4AI, 2019).”

MISA Digital Rights Literacy Report.

The rate at which prices increase in respect to the amount people earn is disproportional. The majority of Zimbabweans operate in the informal sector and there are no guarantees of a consistent revenue stream. Even those with formal employment find it difficult to cope with data costs. Most bundles bought are for specific apps like WhatsApp for example. This severely limits the ability for people to explore what lies beyond that one app.

This however hasn’t stopped service delivery through apps like WhatsApp. There are a number of groups that deliver news (Techzim has a large WhatsApp community as well as a WhatsApp Bot). People advertise products and services through these groups as well as on statuses. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that to some WhatsApp is the internet.

State of the Industry in Zimbabwe

“Econet Wireless, held an 88.2 percent market share. This indicates a near monopoly of the mobile sector. Its competitors, NetOne and Telecel, both state-owned, have a 24 percent market, and 6.9 market share, respectively. Affordability of the internet limits access to information and freedom of expression, in spite of access to the internet being seen as vital to the enjoyment of digital rights.”

MISA Digital Rights Literacy

It doesn’t help that there is a near monopoly in mobile communications. Econet to their credit have been able to manoeuvre and cover as much ground as they can. This though means there isn’t much for the consumer to look for as an alternative. This leads to a lack of competition which means there aren’t many competitive packages.

The deck is stacked against the existing and potential consumer. The Internet offers opportunity for innovation, there are real needs and minds out there that could meet them. All they need is the access to do it and more. How much more distance could we have covered if we all had affordable, reliable internet?


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