Zim data tar­iff sparks so­cial me­dia frenzy

The Star Late Edition - - BUSINESS REPORT - Tawanda Karombo

HEATED de­bates and out­cries over Zim­babwe’s new mo­bile data prices have prompted a new wave of ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween op­er­a­tors and the govern­ment over a pos­si­ble re­view of the fees, al­though this could take longer to re­solve, with the ICT min­is­ter say­ing he is away on leave un­til Jan­uary 30.

But that did not pre­vent him from be­ing at the re­ceiv­ing end of a bar­rage of in­sults, crit­i­cism and anger from dis­grun­tled sub­scribers. Some users even sug­gested adopt­ing South African mo­bile net­works, such as MTN and Vo­da­com, and us­ing them on roam­ing in Zim­babwe.

“Shall we start buy­ing South African lines and rely on in­ter­na­tional roam­ing for life? Now is the time to show ‘re­silience’,” tweeted ad­vo­cate Fadzai Ma­here un­der the #DataMustFall ban­ner.

The new “floor” data tar­iffs ap­proved by the Zim­babwe govern­ment have been set by the reg­u­la­tor at 2 cents per 1MB, with Econet Wire­less, the big­gest telco, now charg­ing $5 for 250MB and 50 cents for 5MB.

Supa Mandi­wanzira, the Zim­bab­wean ICT min­is­ter, has been called names on Face­book and Twit­ter af­ter he said on Wed­nes­day: “Seen your ques­tions. I’m on leave un­til Jan 30 & out of the coun­try since Box­ing Day. On re­turn to work, I will get to the bot­tom of it.”

Al­though the di­rec­tive to hike data charges was is­sued to all mo­bile net­work op­er­a­tors – in­clud­ing NetOne and Tele­cel Zim­babwe, which are both owned by the state – Econet im­ple­mented the new data tar­iffs first. For this it has been tar­geted for in­sults by an­gry Zim­bab­weans, al­though chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer Dou­glas Mboweni said yes­ter­day that the com­pany shared its sub­scribers’ “pain” and an­guish over the data fees.

“We have read and lis­tened to the feed­back that you have shared with us in re­spect to this ac­tion. We are en­gag­ing the reg­u­la­tor on the mat­ter,” Mboweni said.

Gift Machengete, the di­rec­tor-gen­eral of Potraz, said the in­tro­duc­tion of the new floor prices for data “will en­sure con­sis­tent and sus­tain­able long-term pro­vi­sion of ser­vices” by op­er­a­tors in Zim­babwe.

“The au­thor­ity’s in­ten­tion in set­ting floor prices is, there­fore, to main­tain a del­i­cate bal­ance be­tween ser­vice af­ford­abil­ity by con­sumers and op­er­a­tor vi­a­bil­ity,” Machengete said.

Sources told Busi­ness Re­port that a se­ries of meet­ings had lined up be­tween the op­er­a­tors and govern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives, while Mandi­wanzira had been briefed about the stand-off over the new data tar­iffs.

Some an­a­lysts and other ex­perts said the data tar­iff hike was the govern­ment’s re­sponse to the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity and in­flu­ence of so­cial me­dia plat­forms on po­ten­tial protest ac­tions against the govern­ment in elec­tions slated for 2018. In 2016, Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe’s govern­ment was rocked by protests or­gan­ised and mo­bilised through so­cial me­dia plat­forms such as What­sApp and Face­book.

Al­though the mo­bile op­er­a­tors had al­ways pressed for a hike in data tar­iffs, the re­sis­tance that the new fees have been met with have prompted them to seek a re­view, said one source.

“Ex­ec­u­tives from mo­bile op­er­a­tors are lin­ing up meet­ings with min­istry and Potraz of­fi­cials and are seek­ing au­di­ences with the di­rec­tor-gen­eral. But they have al­ways pushed for a hike in tar­iffs ar­gu­ing that op­er­at­ing con­di­tions jus­tify an in­crease,” an­other govern­ment of­fi­cial with knowl­edge of de­vel­op­ments said yes­ter­day. Dis­cus­sions

Brian Mu­tandiro, the act­ing chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer at NetOne, which has not yet im­ple­mented the new data tar­iffs, also said the govern­ment-owned telco was in dis­cus­sions with the tele­com reg­u­la­tor on im­ple­men­ta­tion of the new, steep data fees.

But sub­scribers are not tak­ing any of the ex­pla­na­tions of­fered by govern­ment of­fi­cials and by ex­ec­u­tives from the mo­bile op­er­a­tors, with Twit­ter user Ti­nashe Manyanga say­ing in a mes­sage di­rected to Mandi­wanzira: “Did you guys con­sider that data is not just for ‘so­cial’ me­dia, but it’s also a learn­ing and eco­nomic tool?”

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