Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mobile Phone System Overburdened

Cheap phone calls are available to everyone, but rock-bottom prices are clogging up the networks and making it hard for businesses to get through to each other.
By Tichaona Chingombe
What with frequent power outages, long periods without running water and unreliable telecommunications, doing business in Zimbabwe has become a nightmare.

Mobile phones, introduced a decade ago, have also been affected. As the main means of communication following the collapse of other systems, the cellular network is now under such strain that doing business by phone can be a maddening experience.

The government-owned TelOne, which runs the landline network, has virtually collapsed and cannot repair existing lines, let alone install new ones. The telephone wires are continually vandalised by unemployed youths, who steal the metal to sell on to unscrupulous dealers.

In the absence of working landlines, Zimbabweans have switched en masse to mobile technology. Because the government controls the amount networks are allowed to charge per minute, the rates have been kept phenomenally low and many poorer members of society can now just about afford mobiles.

As a result, Zimbabweans have become one of the most talkative nations in the world, with usage levels that defy the logic of rising poverty levels in both rural and urban areas.

Once considered a status symbol, the mobile phone is now accessible to everyone, even in the poorer rural areas. Rich and poor are separated only by how expensive their handsets are.

Douglas Mboweni, chief executive of Econet Wireless Zimbabwe, the biggest network, says Zimbabweans stay on the phone longer than anywhere else in Africa. While the international average for mobile phone use is 40 minutes a month, Zimbabweans clock up 200 minutes.

However, the boom in mobile use has a downside - network congestion is so bad that people complain it takes them an average of five attempts to make a call. The situation worsens during peak hours and gets even more difficult at the weekend, when charges are even lower.

Overuse of the networks has become a major headache for businesses. An industry expert who did not want to be named said the congestion problem had arisen because of the government’s price cap, imposed despite evidence from all over the world that such policies do not work.

“The real cause of network congestion is not lack of capacity per se,” said the expert. “What we have is overuse of the networks because the rates charged are simply too low. A lot of business is lost because the networks are clogged by idle talk by people who spend hours on the phone without generating any revenue for government.”

Added to this were the frequent power cuts that increase the burden on the transmission stations still in operation, he said.

He pointed to the many unemployed youths who throng the Roadport bus terminus in Harare, where most of the black-market currency takes place.

In a normal economy, these young people would be struggling to buy a prepaid charge card, he said. “But in Zimbabwe, these are the people who spend the day determining the latest rate of the US dollar to the Zimbabwean dollar. They have enough airtime to phone any part of the country and even abroad any time and virtually control the foreign currency rate on any given day.”

He concluded, “The long and short of it is that while government thinks that low rates will give access to information to the poor, they are frustrating expeditious business operations through network congestion and promoting illegal foreign currency deals by the unemployed.”

Nor does this all activity translate into significant income for the network companies, as the amount they can charge is so low at 50,000 Zimbabwean dollars, ZWD, or one US cent per minute.

All three networks - Econet Wireless, NetOne and Telecel - complain that they cannot increase their network because of the limitations imposed by Potraz, the government agency which allocates frequencies and sets prices.

Econet is the largest operator with nearly a million subscribers on contracts or using its popular two prepaid card brands, Libertie and Buddie. It is followed by the state-controlled NetOne with some 350,000 subscribers and then Telecel International with about 200,000.

The companies do not have the foreign currency they need to import equipment to expand their coverage or to print new SIM cards. The only foreign currency widely available comes from the illegal black market where one US dollar now sells for five million ZWD.

The network operators say they would need to charge at least 450,000 ZWD or nine US cents a minute to remain viable, but even this would not be enough to cover the costs they have to pay for international calls, which have to be settled in foreign currency.

The congestion is exacerbated by the presence of millions of Zimbabweans abroad, either in South Africa and other regional states or in places like Britain and Australia. According to independent estimates, the diaspora accounts for between a quarter and a third of Zimbabwe’s total population of close to 12 million.

The emigrants call home regularly and spend long periods on the phone speaking to each family member in turn.

TelOne has recently launched a fixed wireless system with the help of Chinese company Huawei Technologies, but this network is already suffering the same problems of congestion because handsets and charges are so cheap.

Tichaona Chingombe is the pseudonym of a journalist in Zimbabwe.

More IWPR's Global Voices