Eric Bloch Column

Economic curse of telecommunications

By Eric Bloch

MANY are the causes of Zimbabwe’s economic morass. They range from the government’s near-total destruction of agriculture, which has always been the country&

#8217;s foundation of its economy, to its equally foolhardy and catastrophic alienation of the majority of the international community.

They include the dissuasion of international tourism to patronise Zimbabwe, achieved through the prolonged breakdown in law and order. They also include the government’s grossly excessive regulation of the economy, which is a great deterrent to investors.

The economic distress of the last seven years has also been attributable to almost worldwide perceptions (not without foundation) that Zimbabwe is governed by a dictatorship, instead of being a genuine democracy. The absence of democratic freedom is a great demotivant to international investment and trade.

Inflation too has played no small role in bringing the economy to its knees, with the critical upsurge to hyperinflation levels having been almost wholly due to fiscal profligacy and pronounced corruption.

In turn, all those and many other factors have combined to stimulate a massive “brain drain” from Zimbabwe, with the result that the economy is severely lacking many of the essential skills required to keep the wheels of commerce and industry, agriculture, mining, tourism and other economic sectors turning.

But these are not only contributants to economic decline. They also contribute to the intense difficulty of reversing that decline. There are numerous other catalysts of the immense collapse of the economy, and some of those are also among the very great barriers to be overcome if economic wellbeing is to be restored.

One of the foremost of the obstacles that needs to be surmounted is the overwhelming inadequacies of Zimbabwe’s telecommunications, which have become the curse of almost all that are economically active and who strive to revitalise their operations to viable levels.

Almost the only facet of Zimbabwean telecommunication services that operates with any degree of reasonable reliability is the belated rendition to subscribers of accounts for payment for the abysmal services provided, and the disconnection of service if such accounts are not paid timeously (usually being necessary within 24 hours of receipt of the account, either due to delayed dispatch of accounts, or due to tardy mail delivery services).

Virtually nothing else within the telecommunication services works effectively.

Making a subscriber trunk dialling call from any place in Zimbabwe to any other, or further afield within the region or internationally, is a Herculean undertaking. Invariably, an engaged signal is forthcoming after dialling only area code and the first three digits of the requireddestination. This can recur endlessly, and especially so during business hours.

The result is that every user of the telephone wastes many hours with constant redialling, the economic value of which is unquantifiable on a national basis, but must be immense. Billions and billions of dollars must be forfeit annually as a consequence of the prolonged endeavours necessary to make telephone calls, and there are also very numerous examples of business orders and contracts lost due to delayed telephonic communications.

Of course, the problem is not confined to the services of the state’s telecommunications’ parastatal, TelOne, for to varying degrees it applies to the cellular telephone services available in Zimbabwe as well. That is particularly so of a publicly listed cellular telephone service which, inits early days, provided its subscribers with a spectacularly effective service. Regrettably, that is something of the past.

Invariably any attempt now to make a call on that network results in a signal on the screen “network busy” or a metallic female recorded voice claiming that “the number you have dialled is no longer in service”, although it is irrefutable that such number is in service, save that the network is denying access to it, and denying it any access to other subscribers. Over the last three years there have been repeated apologetic advertisements in the press from that network, stating that it would be undergoing an upgrade of its telecommunications’ infrastructure but, instead, the service is going continuously from bad to worse.

One must also ponder on the extent to which its profits are swollen by the inadequacies of its services for, although it must undoubtedly be losing considerable revenues due to unconnected calls, equally when a subscriber is fortunate enough to achieve a connection, his call will invariably be terminated precipitously before expiry of the time period which correlates to the minimum charge.

All too often, it takes at least three calls to conclude one short conversation, although those three calls will be spaced well apart, due to the network deficiencies. However, ultimately the network company benefits from the charges for three calls whereas there should (based upon aggregate duration of the calls) only have been the minimum charge for one.

In fairness, the economic losses are not solely due to the inadequacies of the telecommunication system or the maintenance of those systems. They are exacerbated by the prolonged delays that invariably characterise requests for landline repairs.

It appears that, as a general rule, it takes at least a fortnight, and often very much longer, for Tel*One’s maintenance crews to respond to a breakdown call. Usually the excuse for the extended reaction time is a lack of transport.

Not only is the subscriber greatly inconvenienced, but the supposed service provider sustains a loss of income, in the absence of telephonic traffic while service is out of commission. However, that is not always the case, for there are instances where despite there being no service for as many as four or more months, Tel*One unhesitatingly continues to charge line rental.

That is not completely different to the cellphone networks, who charge full monthly rental even when one receives one-tenth to one-quarter of the required service — the remainder of the subscriber’s time being frustratingly and fruitlessly expended upon recurrent redialling of required numbers, without achieving connection.

If Zimbabwe does not rapidly enhance its telecommunications to provide reliable and effective continuing service, all the endeavours of the government and the Reserve Bank to turn the economy around will be hampered, and the turnaround reduced — for poor communications are not an investment incentive, and fuel losses of trade opportunities, while occasioning tremendous losses of valuable, irreplaceable time of the scarce skills resource still available in Zimbabwe. Similar consequences will partially also arise if Zimbabweans do not adapt to constructive usage and communication of telephone services.