Monday, February 23, 2009

Zimbabwe - roaming at home to save money

Zimbabweans roam on foreign networks to escape costly local service

Judith Maingire gasps in shock as she stares at her phone bill – a whopping US$587 she incurred in just over two weeks.

"This is outrageous," she says. "Last month I paid a bill just over one-billion Zimdollars and now I am being asked to part with nearly US$600, this is just too much."

"With this bill I could have bought two return tickets to South Africa."

A frequent traveller to neighbouring countries who makes regular calls to clients dotted across the region, the woman says the huge phone bills could just put her out of business.

"Who can survive paying this kind of money for simple phone calls,” she said, in her surprised anger, speaking to no one in particular. “I mean, with US$600 I can easily pay for two return tickets to South Africa."

Such exorbitant phone bills as Maingire's are what most Zimbabweans have to face each month end.

But others who are quick thinking like Timothy Mhere, a senior manager at a Harare hotel, have found a smarter way to avoid paying the huge phone bills while at the same time enjoying all the benefits that come with subscribing to a bigger foreign mobile phone network.

"The last time I received a cellphone bill for US$80 over a 10-day period I knew that I had to end the nonsense before the local phone networks drove me into debt. I am now roaming on a South African Vodacom line," Mhere said, a note of contentment unmistakable in his voice.

Mhere said on top of the tariffs charged by Vodacom being cheaper than those levied by Zimbabwean networks, the giant South African network is hardly ever congested.

“It is good value for money,” he said. As if to prove his point he added: “many of my friends have since abandoned local networks and are roaming on South Africa’s Vodacom and MTN or on Botswana’s Mascom network.”

Frustrated by local networks whose tariffs are heavy while service is shoddy because they are unable to increase capacity due to an acute shortage of foreign currency to import spares and equipment, an increasing number of Zimbabweans are opting to subscribe to networks in Botswana or South Africa.

"Locals who subscribe to foreign networks pay much lower bills than those using our own networks,” said a marketing executive with one of the private local networks.

“This is clearly because of the distorted market environment in Zimbabwe, where for example the US dollar buys about 30 percent less than it does everywhere else in the world,” added the executive, who said he uses Vodacom to make most of his calls.

Local mobile phone networks are charging an average of US$0.29 cents a minute, which they admit may be higher when compared to most countries in the region.

But the operators argue that their charges are justified if one factors in the huge taxes they pay to the government and they also say they have to charge higher tariffs to cushion themselves against losses they are forced to incur during the long hours networks are down due to frequent power outages that affect the country.

As mobile phone operators insist on maintaining high tariffs, consumers also have to worry about moves by the country’s sole fixed network operator, TelOne, to peg bills in foreign currency.

"You are hereby formally notified that with effect from February 1, 2009, all services offered by TelOne will be billed in foreign currency," TelOne said in a recent statement to clients.

"Customers are therefore advised to carefully monitor usage of their lines in order to avoid telephone abuse which can prove to be very costly," it added.

A senior banker who refused to be named also said he would be resorting to roaming. "I am Zellco client, but with effect from February I am making arrangements that I would be roaming either on a South African or Botswana line," he said.

"My child is in Australia for his studies and I have to talk to him regularly by email, but I also need to hear his voice from time to time. So, I have to move from these Zimbabwean networks,” he added.

Maingire said she would first clear her bills with her local network before switching over to possibly Vodacom since most of her visits outside the country are to South Africa.

But the businesswoman was quick to point out that in the long run it was neither sustainable nor desirable for Zimbabweans in general to transfer to mobile networks in neighbouring countries.

Echoing the hopes of many Zimbabweans, she said: “The way to go is for this unity government to get to work immediately to revamp national infrastructure such as the national telecoms network and roads because these are vital if we are to rebuild the country.”

The jury is still out on whether a unity government between President Robert Mugabe and opposition leaders Morgan Tsavangirai and Arthur Mutambara will be able to live up to the expectations of Maingire and her fellow Zimbabweans. – ZimOnline

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