Zimbabwe’s mobile telephone subscribers have raised concern over poor quality services by network providers with calls dropping and account balances vanishing before they are even used. Information Communication Technology minister Supa Mandiwanzira last week said government is mulling introducing punitive measures such as heavy fines for mobile network operators that provide shoddy services and fail to offer the full value of subscribers’ balances.
Zimbabwe Independent business reporter Taurai Mangudhla (TM) interviewed Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) acting director general Baxton Sirewu (BS) on the regulator’s quality control and consumer protection initiatives in light of the prevailing situation. Below are excerpts:
TM: What is Potraz’s policy on voice and data billing?
BS: The general policy for the charges or tariffs of all postal and telecommunications services is that they should be cost based. Thus, the tariffs for voice or data services should reflect the cost of providing that service. As Potraz, we embarked on a cost study project to determine the cost of providing voice, SMS and data services. The project started in 2012 and was completed in 2014. Implementation of the results from this project started on January 1 2015 with voice tariffs reducing from 23 cents to 15 cents. Further implementation of the results was done on January 1 2016 where there was a slight increase in the tariff to 16 cents, emanating from the increase in the USF levy from 0,5% to 1,5% and the factoring of the 5% excise duty on telecommunication services airtime.
With respect to data and internet services, the studies revealed that the cost of providing these services were much higher than the then current charges. This was largely attributable to low data usage coupled with network inefficiencies arising, in part, from infrastructure duplication. Given the circumstances, Potraz arrived at a determination to leave tariffs for data and internet services to market forces, subject to regulatory approval prior to implementation. On its part, the regulator has come up with other strategies aimed at lowering data or internet tariffs. These include infrastructure sharing and the establishment of an internet exchange points at both national and regional level to cut the costs of international internet connectivity.
TM: The Minister of ICT Supa Mandiwanzira last week said mobile networks are overcharging customers as much as 10 times more than their regional counterparts, particularly on data. What is your take on this?
BS: As indicated above, the cost for data and internet services were found to be much higher than the charges due to low usage volumes and infrastructure duplication. The authority will review the cost models for data and internet during 2016, with the aim of establishing the true cost of providing data and internet services. It is only after getting the cost study results that the authority will be able to map the way forward. It is our expectation that the review of the cost models will reflect much lower cost of providing data and internet services in view of the growing usage traffic for data and internet services.
TM: Some consumers have complained that their data bundles or airtime “disappears” from their accounts even before it is used. This has also been noted on feature phones that have no data functions. What is your view as a regulator and what are you doing to address this?
BS: As a regulatory authority, we have complaints handling procedures whereby the first port of call if the consumer has a complaint is the operator. Consumers can proceed to approach the regulator should they not be satisfied with the operator’s response or if there is none response from the operator. Nonetheless, we also carry out billing authentication as the regulator to check the accuracy of billing. We have also noted a general trend where some consumers subscribe to chargeable premium services through other service providers like banks, retail shops, insurance, mobile money, value added services that are linked to their mobile numbers. These may result in depletion of airtime balances especially if subscription is periodic and automatic.
Background usage of data by smart applications and device operating systems is another major cause of the disappearance of balances.
As the regulator, we are considering educating consumers on the use of mobile applications and how to manage such apps on their mobile phones. We will soon embark on education and awareness programmes specifically focusing on mobile applications.
TM: The ICT Minister also said Potraz was in the process of establishing a consumer division and acquiring technology to monitor the quality of networks and fine offenders. What is the state of progress?
BS: The issue of a creation of consumer division is one of the mandates that was given to the newly appointed board of directors and it is still work in progress.
TM: Can you elaborate more on the extent of progress?
BS: The technology to monitor quality of service has already been acquired and is fully functional. The regulator has come up with quality of services regulations which will facilitate the enforcement of applicable quality of service standards.