Govt moves to tighten telecoms grip

GOVERNMENT is moving to consolidate its grip on the telecommunications sector through forcing mobile operators into infrastructure sharing as it seeks to control cyberspace, while keeping the biggest mobile operator Econet Wireless in check.

Hazel Ndebele

Informed sources said this week as part of government’s attempt to control cyberspace, the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) which is now under the Office of the President, has this week been holding meetings on infrastructure sharing.

“Potraz set up two groups namely the technical advisory team which deals with structures on infrastructure and the commercial advisory team. The teams had been meeting separately to strategise but this week they had combined meetings to map way forward in terms of infrastructure sharing as you are aware we were given only 90 days,” a source told the Zimbabwe Independent on Wednesday.
Cyberspace is the notional environment in which communication over computer networks occurs; it deals with everything to do with fibre, and communication storage. The person who controls cyberspace has power over all information found in the cyber world such as emails, social media and telephone calls. Authorities think it is in every government’s interest in the world to control cyberspace especially through legislation.

Cyber activity in Zimbabwe is growing and Econet, the largest mobile network, has a significant footprint and control in the country’s cyberspace hence government aims to dilute that. Econet owns the largest internet access provider Liquid Telecoms and has the largest Internet Service Provider (ISP), Zimbabwe online.

Other than the use of legislation, government also seek to control cyber world through ownership control of entities and infrastructure. Recently the state-run fixed telecoms operator, TelOne announced its interest in activating its mobile operator’s licence by pursuing a partnership with another state-owned mobile operator, NetOne.

TelOne’s managing director Chipo Mtasa told a local daily that partnering with NetOne is the best way for TelOne to activate its licence because of its limited financial resources. Government sources said TelOne’s interest in being a mobile operator is part of authorities’ effort to try gain more control over cyberspace.
“Infrastructure sharing would enable TelOne to become the country’s fourth mobile operator through the use of existing infrastructure of other mobile operators,” the source said.

On Wednesday Information Communication Technology (ICT) minister Supa Mandiwanzira told parliament that government is interested in controlling cyberspace.

“It is important for me to highlight government’s involvement in the telecommunications sector. All our lives are now dependent on telecommunications infrastructure such as our health, our e-government and education; therefore it is so important that a neutral player like government is at the centre of infrastructure in telecommunications to ensure that it is not abused by individuals for whatever agenda they may have,” Mandiwanzira said.

He also said government ISP Zarnet is set to buy shares from Telecel Zimbabwe (Telecel) which is the country’s third largest mobile telecommunications company. Telecoms experts say Zarnet has no capacity to do that.

The ICT minister last week gave mobile operators a 90-day ultimatum to sign documents on infrastructure sharing. The sharing of active infrastructure would involve the sharing of antennas, base stations, trans-receivers, switches and microwave radio systems. Passive sharing implies sharing of towers, basements, electric supply, shelters and ducts.

Sources said the desperate bid to buy Telecel by government and compelling mobile operators to share infrastructure is all part of the plot to eventually own and control cyberspace. However, Econet is resisting.

In a statement on infrastructure sharing on March 29 this year, Econet said: “The tone that the current debate on infrastructure sharing has taken appears aimed at compelling Econet Wireless to make its infrastructure available for the use of others who chose other investment priorities. Therefore the type of infrastructure sharing under debate is not feasible. It is a disguised, unconstitutional form of compulsory acquisition of our infrastructure.”

Zimbabwe’s interest in controlling cyberspace comes at a time China’s legislature passed a measure called National Security Law a fortnight ago to reinforce its government’s controls over cyberspace, raising concerns among various stakeholders in the Asian country.

Infrastructure sharing is common globally and it has proven to be one of the most effective ways of promoting affordable prices and reducing the duplication of huge capital investments in infrastructure by service providers. However, in the case of Zimbabwe it could mean that government has more power to spy on citizens and infringe privacy rights through misuse of information.

Article 57 of the Zimbabwean constitution guarantees the right to privacy.

An ICT consultant, Chris Musodza said: “With infrastructure sharing it will be feasible for the Zimbabwean government to operate a signals intelligence, interception, surveillance system, and content filter. Of course no government can be too happy to have a private company, in this case Econet, controlling cyberspace hence the move by our authorities to take over.

“Telecoms providers have subscriber database of all SIM card holders, subscriber’s name, address, gender, nationality, and passport or ID number. The database is a prerequisite for any meaningful surveillance,” Musodza added.

Surveillance and Interception technology has developed over the years. National interception systems can be configured to take all the traffic from the internet and mobile phones, and sending it through devices that inspect packets of data, determine their content, detect patterns, and select what to copy for law enforcement agencies. Zimbabwe already has a law, the Interception of Communication Act 2007, which gives government significant powers of surveillance over the communications of its citizens.

Despite the existing law government is working on additional statutory Bills namely Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill, Electronic Transaction and Electronic Commerce Bill and the Data Protection Bill which the Independent has seen.

The Independent also has in its possession the three draft Bills. The Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill would allow government to remotely install forensic spying tools onto citizen’s communication devices.

The Electronic Transaction and Electronic Commerce Bill is aimed at promoting legal certainty and enforceability to electronic transactions and electronic commerce. The Data Protection will govern the processing of personal information by private and public bodies to prevent unauthorised and arbitrary use.