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‘Potraz targeting wide internet connectivity’

THE world is moving rapidly in telecommunications, as well as information, communication technology (ICT) development.

However, Zimbabwe still faces a plethora of challenges, among them the unavailability of digital facilities, in particular internet connectivity and where such a service is available, the cost of data is expensive as compared to other countries in the region. This week, Zimbabwe Independent reporter Hazel Ndebele (HN) caught up with Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) director general Gift Kallisto Machengete (GM) to discuss the above issues, as well as Potraz’s plans for 2018. Find below excerpts of the interview.

HN: What plans does Potraz have for 2018?

GM: In the fast-paced world of telecommunications and ICTs, regulation is all about keeping astride with emerging models and technologies, while at the same time ensuring that legacy issues are addressed, so that no-one among the citizenry is left behind.

Legacy issues that we find ourselves saddled with as we step deeper into 2018 include the urban-rural digital divide as highlighted by those areas of territorial Zimbabwe where there is no network coverage — be it 2G, 3G, let alone 4G; the unavailability of digital facilities, in particular internet connectivity, at the majority of our schools, hospitals, vocational training centres and institutions of higher learning; the dearth of fixed broadband connections across various sectors of the economy and the less-than-impressive network speeds even in those areas where we have 4G and fixed broadband.

Emerging issues that are disrupting the traditional business and regulatory models in our sector include, among others, the convergence of all communications sub-sectors around the internet protocol or should I say around the internet itself, the rise of new platforms and applications, including the Internet of Things (IOT), artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality.

The Potraz Annual Plan, which was concluded at the end of 2017, answers to these legacy and emerging issues in a way that we believe is progressive and radical. The annual plan places a lot of attention on legacy issues as we need to take everyone on board in our journey towards a digital economy or knowledge-based information society.

Such an economy and society can only be realised at the instance of ubiquitous connectivity. Accordingly, our first priority is the provision of affordable connectivity throughout Zimbabwe. At the end of 2017, 314 rural wards were either scantily covered or absolutely uncovered by terrestrial networks — meaning the 1,5 million people who live in those areas cannot communicate as they would wish; they cannot transact when they need to and their children are not exposed to the digital world at a tender age for them to become digital natives.

Working together with licensed operators, we intend to reduce this coverage gap by at least 25% in 2018 through the towers project. Our priority number two is on ICT literacy and skills development. Year 2017 saw us build a lot of momentum on the Community Information Centre (CIC) programme and the complementary Connect-a-School — Connect a Community Programme.

We intend to move a gear up on these two programmes by delivering an additional 120 CICs and 1 300 connected schools. Related to these programmes is the Telemedicine project that we are scheduled to conclude and implement by April this year. Our third priority in the 2018 Plan is in the area of Confidence and Trust (C&T). No matter how pervasive our networks can be and no matter how affordable the relevant services can be — if consumers do not have confidence and trust in the network then the full potential of a connected society cannot be realised. Against the backdrop of that reality, Potraz is working towards building a robust ecosystem of ICT service provision wherein security of information is high and so is confidence and trust in the use of the network.

The year 2018 should see the enactment of cyber laws and, more importantly, the operationalisation of such laws. One major element of national cyber security is the establishment of a Computer Incident Response Team (CIRT) which we expect to have set by year-end. Our fourth priority is the modernisation of licensing and regulatory frameworks for the accommodation of emerging services. Our fifth priority is innovation, adoption and adaptation. In our quest to attain knowledge society status, we need to foster and nurture a sustainable innovation ecosystem. Other key Outputs for 2018 will include: coming up with a national broadband plan; establishing and implementing the super gateway; coming up with at least three model post offices; concluding the emergency response centre project and connecting more schools under the Schools Connectivity Project.

HN: Potraz has admitted that data tariffs charged by the country’s mobile network operators are very high as compared to other countries in the region. What has the regulator done about this?

GM: Tariffs for all regulated postal and telecommunications services are cost based, as such cost information informs the charges for services such as data in Zimbabwe. The cost elements include the cost of energy used by the operators, cost of international bandwidth, cost of trenching fibre and building base stations, network maintenance costs and cost of capital inter alia. Potraz engaged an international consultant to model the charges for the telecommunications sector in 2014 and reengaged the same consultant to review these models in 2017. The cost-modelling project was done and completed last year, and implementation of the results will be done during the first quarter of 2018.

HN: Will the regulator demand any further reductions in prices for voice calls from the mobile network operators?

GM: As alluded to, the cost of all postal and telecommunications services are cost based. As a regulator we cannot just thumb–suck the prices of voice services, but we are guided by the movement in cost elements that affect the cost of providing the services.

HN: What is Potraz’s policy on voice and data billing?

GM: In line with Quality of Service (QoS) regulations, the billing of voice and data services has to be accurate. Operators have an obligation of providing, upon request from customers, the billing statements and billing rates as well as the pulse used. Voice tariffs should be billed per second. Failure to meet the standards as espoused by the QoS standards results in operators being penalised in terms of the regulations.

HN: Some quarters have said Econet is at a disadvantage because it is competing against Telecom companies in which government, which is also the regulator, has shares. What is your view on this?

GM: Potraz is an independent and neutral regulator and treats all operators the same. This is evidenced by equal treatment that operators receive in terms of allocation of resources such as spectrum and numbers. All operators also use the same interconnection regime, and are subjected to the same infrastructure sharing regulations. We wish to point out that in other countries only operators with a significant market power like Econet are subjected to regulations while smaller operators are not effectively regulated. In our case, smaller and bigger operators are subjected to the same regulations.

HN: Can we expect other players in the mobile market this year?

GM: Spectrum is a finite resource that also limits the number of operators that can be licensed. Another point to note is that, as a rule of thumb. The population size of a country normally informs the number of licensed operators that can effectively be licensed and offer services. The population size of Zimbabwe is not that big to sustain a lot of big players in the market. However, to introduce more players into the arena, the authority will license Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs), which will ride on existing networks. We also wish to point out that mobility is now generalised as fixed — mobile convergence fast becomes a reality. Soon we shall all realise that the lines that hitherto delineated and set our network-categories apart have since disappeared and we are left with digital service providers or communication service providers.

Then and only then shall we open our eyes to the new world order of convergence.

HN: How is the telecoms Universal Services Fund (USF) managed? We have heard reports of the funds being abused, can you elaborate?

GM: The Universal Services Fund is used to extend ICT, telecommunications and postal services to unserved and underserved areas deemed unprofitable for business by operators.

This is to ensure that there is universal access to these areas in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. The unserved and underserved areas are usually remote rural areas where the generality of the population live below the poverty datum line and as such cannot afford to pay for such services on their own. In the case of telecommunication services, the fund is used to set up passive infrastructure such as towers and generators for backup power.

Operators then come and install their active equipment such as IP radios, without having to incur any capital expenditure. In the case of ICT services, the fund has been used to purchase computers and roll out connectivity to schools under the Schools Computerisation Programme. The Community Information Centre and Village Information Centre projects are also some of the ICT-related projects for which the fund is used.

These projects are aimed at improving digital literacy among communities through training in basic computer skills, which training will be escalated to more advanced levels under future programmes. The training is free of charge. The centres are also meant to ensure communities have access to ICTs as they have internet facilities as well as lithographic services (printing, faxing, photocopying). All services are offered at concessionary rates. On the postal side, the fund has been used to ensure postal services reach those unserved and underserved areas I have alluded to. This has been done through the provision of vans to be used as mobile post offices by the designated postal operator, Zimpost, among other projects. The USF funds have never been abused in anyway. All projects are approved by the USF Board of trustees before implementation. The budgets for the projects are also approved by the USF Board of Trustees before expenditure. All USF accounts and activities are audited internally and by the Auditor-General’s Office and no adverse audit report has been received so far. Anyone willing to audit the USF financials is allowed to do so. It is only a myth that the funds are being abused.

HN: How is the shortage of foreign currency affecting Potraz’s operations?

GM: Foreign currency shortages affect our ability to pay international service providers such as consultants, as well as our ability to procure goods and services such as telecommunications equipment from international vendors and external consultancy services. Foreign currency is also required for renewal of licences for software used by the authority, payment of services offered by international consultants as well as payment of subscriptions to international organisations that the authority is affiliated to organisations such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the African Telecommunications Union (ATU), among others.

HN: What are the challenges being faced by Potraz?

GM: In terms of challenges, the foreign currency shortages inhibit the authority from effectively accomplishing some of the projects. The same applies to the operators — whom I must say are our implementing agencies — without the requisite resources, cannot develop their networks to the extent that we would want and oblige them to.

They inadvertently fail to meet Quality of Service standards as stipulated by the authority and risk being switched off by their upstream providers. Clearly, the general performance of the economy has a direct bearing on the performance of the sector, hence as long as the economy is depressed, the performance of the sector will also be compromised. Other challenges are to do with regulation of emerging services like Over the Top services (OTTs) that are not only a problem to Potraz, but a global issue that will need to be dealt with holistically.

Fact File: Kallisto Machengete

  • Holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Economics from the University of Zimbabwe;
  • Holds a Master of Business Administration Degree (MBA) from Southern Cross University, Australia;
  • Holds a Doctorate in Business Administration from the same University in Australia for which he graduated with a distinction and was awarded the University Plaque for outstanding achievement;
  • Over 30 years working experience in the civil service, having started his career in 1985 as a research economist for the government of Zimbabwe;
  • Deployed to China in 1991 as the economic counsellor at the Zimbabwe embassy;
  • Senior economist and the head of co-ordination and secretariat in the government of Zimbabwe between 1995 and 2001;
  • Former Zimbabwe’s deputy ambassador to Malaysia;
  • One of the first lecturers for the Masters in Business Leadership Degree programme at Bindura University of Science Education;
  • Lecturing in the Masters in Security and Intelligence at the same University.
  • Part of boards of directors for four companies — Traffic Safety Council of Zimbabwe, Sino Zimbabwe, Kneebow (Pvt) Ltd and Grain Marketing Board (GMB); and
  • Retired as deputy director-general in the Office of the President in 2016, just before assuming office as Potraz director-general in December the same year.

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