BUSINESS: Zimbabwe’s data fiasco part of social media conspiracy

 

By – Lulu Brenda Harris

There was a tug of war between Zimbabwe’s largest mobile network provider, Econet Wireless and the Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology, Postal and Courier Services over who is telling the truth regarding internet data tariffs.

Bone of contention is who exactly between the two asked for an increase of data tariffs.

The public has been bombarded with tweets and press releases from both sides with each blaming the other for the abortive tariff hike.

In the murky storm of such communiqués what has become apparent is that someone is taking the public for a joyride by not telling the truth.

What boggles the mind is the motive or motives behind the falsehood and why one side should be perceived as greedy by the other.

The war is thought to have started late last year, when the country’s telecommunication regulator, the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) set floor pricing of mobile data to $0.02 (2 cents) per megabyte (MB).

Floor pricing means the lowest legal cost, which gave mobile network operators green-light to set whatever price they saw fit as long as cost was above $0.02.

Besides Econet, the other mobile network providers are Netone and Telecel.

Effective in January 11, 2016, Zimbabwe’s largest network provider Econet Wireless was the first operator to comply and immediately implemented the new data tariffs.

The company increased its tariffs five times more to the detriment of people as a US$1 translated to 10 MB and a bonus of 10 MB on wifi.

Zimbabwe had now the second most expensive data in Africa at $50 per gig, behind Sudan whose data is $90 per gig.

There was a massive outcry as most people in Zimbabwe rely on social media for communication. Therefore, because of lower costs, such a huge increase was bound to affect communications.

Almost everyone is part of a WhatsApp group where information is shared faster and cheaper between family, friends or workmates.

Even companies now resort to WhatsApp to communicate with workers because it is faster than the traditional printed memo.

Consumers and activists called for the reduction of internet prices and even created a #DataMustFall campaign lobbying for change.

Econet reacted to the public outcry by releasing a notice saying they felt the pain of their subscribers but had to adhere to POTRAZ’s directive.

Barely 48 hours later, minutes of a meeting between POTRAZ and the network providers was leaked online showing that Econet was the one that in fact proposed a tariff increase.

Mandiwanzira, who was on leave then tweeted the new tariff prices were unfair to the public and reversed them with immediate effect.

The minister also pointed out that the network operators had applied for the tariff increase not POTRAZ. This prompted Econet to respond by releasing yet another public notice accusing the minister and POTRAZ’s director general of duplicity and insincerity.

In turn, Mandiwanzira warned Econet to stop politicising the matter, insisting that the company was behind the unreasonable tariff hike. He went on to describe Econet’s statements as “alarming” and advised the company stick to its core business mandate.

This fiasco begs the questions: who is lying, and why are they lying?

Mandiwanzira through his ICT ministry controls majority shareholding in Telecel, one of the three network providers.

The ICT ministry acquired 60 per cent shareholding in Telecel in December 2016, through an investment vehicle known as ZARNet Pvt Ltd.

The same ministry also controls Netone, the other network provider which means Mandiwanzira is in direct business competition with Econet.

This implies a conflict of interest when a minister controls the regulating body – POTRAZ, which regulates his rivals.

In normal business environments, it is nothing out of the unusual to grab a bigger share of the market and increase profits therefore if Mandiwanzira is in control of the environment, he would make sure that the operating environment favours his business over his rivals.

Being the only privately owned operator, Econet had no choice but to comply with the governments (competitors) directive.

Econet is a conglomerate whose bottom line is making profits, which may also explain why it rushed the tariff increase.

Econet runs several platforms such as Ecocash, Ecosure, Kwese Kwese –an online Television service, is involved in the banking sector via Steward Bank and also provides platform for payments through biller codes.

It is also rumoured that Strive Masiyiwa, founder of Econet harboured presidential ambitions and therefore might have used his company to gain a foothold in the political arena. Last year, Masiyiwa announced he had a decision to make and this raised speculation he would announce his entry into politics.

It turned out the announcement was an internship competition for two entrepreneurs who would receive an opportunity to spend time at one of Masiyiwa’s businesses, as well as one week travelling with him.

The business mogul put to rest speculation that he could have been a possible 2018 presidential candidate as he had no political ambitions.

Whatever the truth may be it is certain that one of the two gentlemen, most likely the minister given the degree of sincerity of the regime and its recorded animosity towards Econet, is playing double dutch on Zimbabweans.

Econet is also guilty as the network is known for its notorious high rates data packages and being unpopular with the public thus playing into the populist agendas of the regime who would like to be seen as reigning in the perceived errant network.

The government has been seeking ways of controlling social media platforms since the rise of online protest movements such as #Thisflag that organised a nationwide stayaway.

Zanu PF is believed to be mulling regulating social media and placing more stringent control on social media in the lead up to elections next year.

Government once attempted to shutdown WhatsApp but were let down by technology as individuals managed to bypass their systems.

The ruling party has realised the power of social media and may wish to control its accessibility and influence. If online protests continue, it may put controls overnight, limiting people’s access to social media and communication.

Or is Mandiwanzira bitter about the MTN deal, a South Africa-based multinational mobile telecommunications company, which wanted to buy Telecel’s shares. Perhaps the exchange between Econet and Mandiwanzira is fallout of the two conspirators.

It is alleged Masiyiwa had cut a deal with Mandiwanzira to block MTN from purchasing Telecel shares because it would have brought huge competition for him.

The reasoning was that with the huge technological gap and size between the networks MTN would have taken over the market share of Econet, if it had acquired Telecel, so Masiyiwa was protecting his investment and bottom line.

Meanwhile Zimbabwe and other countries in SADC could soon be setting mobile data tariffs in line with regional guidelines following plans by a regional telecoms body to enforce universal data tariffs across the region by 2019.

This was one of the issues raised at a regional meeting for the Communications Regulators Association of Southern Africa (CRASA) which was held recently in Harare, Zimbabwe.

The meeting which involved a two-day technical session and a two-day session for legal deliberations brought representatives from Southern Africa’s various telecommunications regulators with Zimbabwe represented by POTRAZ officials.

A uniform mobile data pricing framework would involve the regulatory persuasion of mobile operators to set tariffs which strike a balance between consumers’ access to the internet and managing the service providers’ viability. MA