Zimbabwe mobile operators taking customers for granted and there’s need for more competition

In this digital age - as we enter the fourth industrial revolution – reliable widespread internet and mobile network coverage is central for any country that envisions itself as a part and parcel of this great leap forward in how people, businesses and the world communicate, interact and transact.

Tendai Ruben Mbofana

 

Any nation that wants to be taken seriously as an integral member of the global village – and has a genuine chance of competing even with the very best – needs to ensure that its information communications technologies (ICTs) are up to scratch, dependable and meet the highest standards to be seen anywhere in the world.

It is, then, most disheartening when, here in Zimbabwe, we still face seemingly archaic novice challenges, such as losing network coverage wherever there is a power outage – thereby, halting or severely restricting most business activities – which, in this day and age, are predominantly conducted online in the digital space.

As I write this article, those of us based in the town of Redcliff, have not had any meaningful sustained data network coverage since last night – simply because power supply was disrupted after some heavy rains and strong winds yesterday evening, which we believe felled many electricity pylons and cables in the area.

However, we are not talking about just a small wannabe mobile network operator (MNO) – still cutting its teeth, and struggling to stamp its presence – but, the largest and by far the most dominant mobile player in the country, Econet Wireless.

Need I add that this is also arguably the most expensive between the three operating in Zimbabwe – others being, state-owned NetOne, and the perennially struggling Telecel Zimbabwe – from which, we understandably expect the highest standards and best services.

Let me hasten to add that, this loss of network coverage, most particularly as a result of power outage, is not isolated to today and yesterday – but, has been a nightmare for the MNO’s clients for some time now, in spite of repeated calls for the immediate rectification of the problem, yet to no avail.

Surely, with such exorbitant tariffs, operating a backup alternative power source should not be a huge challenge.

Which explains my reason for writing this article, since this has become an albatross around our necks – considering that, regardless of this seriously disruptive recurring stone age challenge, it is still the ‘best performing’ as compared to its other two competitors.

Please note, in this regard, I use the term ‘best performing’ very reluctantly and grudgingly – purely as a function of the English language’s comparison and superlative grammar – since, the MNO’s services have been on a frightening downward spiral, in the recent past.

The unfortunate predicament faced by digital consumers is that, practically none of the current MNOs – who have been monopolizing this network provision space since the advent of mobile phones in 1996 in Zimbabwe – have been able to reach expected global standards in their services.

It is clear that they are taking their clients for granted – rather opting to enjoy their magnificent annual profit margins, at the expense of their clientele’s acceptable standards.

That is why I am forever thankful to the enterprising bright spark who came up with the idea of dual SIM phones – since, in Zimbabwe, it is never strange having to repeatedly switch from one line to another on a short 200 kilometer journey along the country’s major highways – on account of one network seldom being available for the entire duration of the drive.

We are not talking about a trip into the far flung remote parts of the country – but, a simple drive from Kwekwe to Harare, whose highway connects five of the country’s major cities – although, the state-owned NetOne fares much better, especially in rural areas.

Of course, expiring monthly data bundles is another contentious issue – which many clients regard as daylight robbery – considering that we are forced to use up our remaining mega or gigabytes, on mostly unnecessary things, simply because the thirty day cycle is coming to an end.

Why should one’s data bundles expire?

Why not treat them as voice airtime – whose window of usage can be anywhere from six months to a year?

Surely, no one in their right mind buys airtime and data bundles solely for keeps sake – but, we need to use them only for particular purposes.

Yet, no one should be forced into unplanned usage merely due to strict time limits set by the MNO – more so, when the available options are so limited in scope, and one is left with very little choice than to buy gigabytes he may never be able to finish within the set thirty days – thereby, compelled to purchase another batch of bundles he may never finish for the next monthly cycle.

Honestly, is this not daylight robbery?

In fact, it would appear as if, the more this industry realizes the phenomenal rise in demand for mobile services, the more they rush to remove any promotions that genuinely incentivize clients to choose their products.

Curiously, each supposed ‘systems upgrade’ results in far fewer promotional rewards.

MNO shareholders and directors should not seek to enrich themselves through such sinister and nefarious avenues of clearly fleecing an already struggling population out of their hard-earned meager dollars.

Let us not lose sight of the fact that, the digital space is no longer a place of luxury for the financially strong – but, has become a must for all of us, should we want to survive and succeed in the fourth industrial revolution.

Our elderly mothers and fathers also need not only to easily communicate with relatives and friends now dispersed in all corners of the world – but additionally, source for markets for their small enterprises to augment their terribly pathetic pensions, if they have any at all.

How are they expected to afford  US$7 per month, being the lowest available data bundles from Econet Wireless, for instance – when, even those on social security earn a measly US$10 per month?

If Zimbabwe is serious about being a genuine participant in the global village and fourth industrial revolution, then there is need for concerted efforts in ensuring that deliberate policies are put in place that guarantee easy, affordable and reliable access to the digital space.

A thing as a power outage, or cost of data bundles, or location should never be allowed to be a hindrance to meaningful access to the internet and other modern ICT tools for any Zimbabwean.

It is long overdue that the country opened up and actively welcomed new players in the digital space – most particularly, in the mobile network arena.

I was immensely delighted with the recent announcement by communications regulator POTRAZ (Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe) of the possible entrance of new MNOs – as real competition is what has been missing in this sector.

Zimbabwe is lagging far behind the rest of the continent and world in real meaningful digital penetration, largely due to the stated challenges – which, tragically, appear intentionally designed by our too few MNOs, who seem intent on operating like cartels in prejudicing their clients – and, in so doing, keeping millions of ordinary Zimbabweans out of the digital space.

Let the numbers of alleged mobile subscribers in the country not fool anyone – as these are significantly influenced by individuals owning more than one line, mostly for the reasons highlighted earlier – as such, the real penetration could actually be half or even a third of the stated figures.

We now desperately need new players with innovative products that will not only capture the untapped millions of Zimbabweans kept out of the mobile digital space due to unaffordable costs and lack of network coverage in most areas – but also, those of us who are thoroughly fed up with the shoddy service by current  MNOs.

© Tendai Ruben Mbofana is a social justice advocate, writer, researcher, and social commentator. Please feel free to contact him on WhatsApp or Call: +263715667700 | +263782283975, or Calls Only: +263788897936, or email: [email protected]

 

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