Analysis: EMELDA MUSONDA
THE resolution by Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) to initiate action towards abolishing roaming charges levied on mobile calls is indeed progressive and should be supported by all.
Ministers and government representatives from 15 of the 19 COMESA countries during their 10th meeting held in Lusaka October 3 to 4, 2017, resolved to initiate action towards abolishing roaming charges levied on mobile calls.
The countries that were represented are Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Rwanda, Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The initiative to abolish roaming charges is indeed commendable as it will help bring down the price of information and communication technology services that remains high in Africa compared to other regions of the world.
According to the ministers’ final report, although the pricing of voice services in many African countries was becoming competitive and comparable with the rest of the world, the cost of broadband has continued to be out of reach for most people.
The ministers noted that Africans paid on average 25 percent of monthly gross national income (GNI) per capita mobile cellular calls compared to 11 percent in other developing nations.
Studies conducted in the COMESA region have also shown that Malawians use more than US$12 a month on mobile phones which is more than half of what an ordinary Malawian earns in a month.
The ministers in particular raised general concern on the high mobile termination and roaming charges.
They noted that although mobile phones had provided new sources of originating international traffic, it was also more expensive to terminate traffic on mobile networks.
A termination fee applies to two situations in the context of mobile phones.
When one calls another mobile phone from their mobile device, across two networks – say, Airtel to Zamtel – it means that both networks will require payment for carrying the call.
Globally, the solution to this problem is that the calling party always pays. So, basically, if one calls somebody on Zamtel, and they are on Airtel, the later will incur the cost of the call.
A termination fee may also apply when one is in a contract – either 12, 18 or 24 months and they decide to cancel it, the network is obliged to charge the agreed monthly fee for the duration of the period.
In the case of roaming the customer buys the service of an operator in his home country, but when he travels, he is connected to the network of a foreign operator.
It is this foreign operator that provides the facilities for making and receiving calls and sends the bill to the “home operator” for this wholesale service.
Whatever the case the prices paid by the consumers for roaming services, when travelling within the COMESA region, should not be unjustifiably higher than the charges they pay when calling within their home country.
In abolishing roaming charges COMESA will not be the first to go this route.
The East African Community and the European Union in particular have already gone the same route by eliminating roaming and termination charges.
Abolition of roaming charges is not only beneficial to individuals but to businesses within these groupings, as they impact on the cost of doing business.
Given that COMESA has been advocating integration; abolition of roaming charges will go a long way in promoting integration among member states in the region.
If roaming charges are abolished citizens in the COMESA region like in East African Community and the EU will now be able to call, text and browse the internet on mobile devices while travelling within the region at the same price they pay at home.
Now that the agenda to abolish roaming charges in the COMESA region has been set, ICT regulators in the region need to set the ball rolling by carrying out studies on how to successfully reduce the interconnection rates and reduce or eliminate the roaming charges.
The COMESA ministers of infrastructure also rightly observed that despite substantial investments in network infrastructure in the recent years, Africa lacked a robust network connectivity and high-quality, affordable Internet access.
This is despite COMESA countries representing over 37 percent of the internet users in Africa. And since Africa represents 7 percent of the internet world’s users COMESA therefore constitutes 2.5 percent of the world’s population of the internet users.
It is for this reason that ministers in a decision, which is binding to all the COMESA countries called for setting up of proper regulation to encourage investment in the Virtual Mobile Network Operator (MVNOs) to enhance competition and increase access.
In Africa, MVNO permits have so far been issued in Morocco, Kenya and South Africa.
Member States are also encouraged to invest into the Fibre Technology to The Home (FTTH) to increase capacity and provide excellent quality.
It is hoped that all COMESA member states will join hands to see to it that this brilliant initiative comes to fruition.
The author is Zambia Daily Mail editorials editor.