The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) recent announcement that it has set minimum but high costs for mobile phone voice calls and data charges sparked a bit of a social media outcry. It hasn’t quite started a hashtag movement. But the fairness of it all is being questioned by those that would really use data for entrepreneurial activities.
The private and state-owned telecommunications companies (Telcos) have predictably kept a satisfactory silence over the issue.
Potraz on the other hand has stuck to its guns on the matter, insisting that its drastic move is motivated by the need to ensure that the telecommunications industry is sustainable.
The reality of the matter is that this move is an awkward form of protectionism for Econet, Telecel and NetOne. And it proves beyond any reasonable doubt that the state/government and the Telcos are working in tandem to squeeze the last dollar from mobile phone and data users.
This is something that is not new. Telcos and government have had a long standing collaboration. While not officially declared, revenue collected from these companies either in lieu of licensing or other taxes helped to fund not only the 2013 constitutional referendum but also the harmonised elections.
The recent introduction of a tax on mobile phone usage to support a health insurance scheme (that remains obscure) is further testimony to this collusion.
The Telcos are therefore a key strategic sector for the government to accrue revenue. Hence they tend to get their way with the state. Even if they give the impression that they do not have a say in what the state does.
A more pertinent issue that however has emerged is how to measure the extent to which Zimbabweans view and value issues related to the costs of communicating. Whether through voice calls or through social media/ internet data.
Regrettably the mobile phone in Zimbabwe is still by and large a status symbol. And by dint of the same, so is access to social media or mobile data. This means, the more advanced your mobile phone, the more you are seen to have climbed the social ladder. Not that it really matters. It’s the feeling of being up to date, being able to whatsapp, that makes one belong to a community of the exclusively ‘up to date’ and informed section of our society. As well as the most entertained.
Access to mobile telephony and the internet, within this context, is wrongly viewed by both government and elitist citizens as a privilege and not a right. For the private companies it is simply a means to make a profit without any pretence of serving a broader public interest. Even where they claim corporate social responsibility, it is essentially limited and has little to do with the fact that the internet is after all is said and done an essential public good.
In this respect, the announcement of ‘floor charges’ is only a tip of the iceberg. As many stakeholders have already indicated, data charges as well as over the top functions in Zimbabwe were already of high cost. The fact that they will now be significantly higher may trigger an effective backlash from consumers but it will not begin to address the overall challenge that is the evidently opaque relationship and profiteering collusion between the state and mobile phone companies.
The interlinkages between the pursuit of profit and political control of social media through cost has been an enduring characteristic of this telecommunications industrial complex. It has had its ups and downs (Econet Zimbabwe vs the government) but these two entities have always found each other where it matters most, i.e profit.
So as it is, the mobile telephone companies are not going to insist on keeping costs lower. They will make the most of what obtains until such a time government through POTRAZ changes its mind. Even if its only for a month.
Neither will they listen to the complaints of consumers of their products because they know almost everyone now intuitively uses a phone and will probably still find a way of being connected, even if at greater cost.
The question that we as Zimbabweans however must answer is how we view access to the internet and its related applications/new technologies. We would be better off viewing it as a basic human right in this day and age. Because if we don’t, we will be priced out of our right to express ourselves or access information.