The issue of high international roaming and data charges in Southern Africa has been on the discussion board for many years.
It is a matter that has vexed the travelling public and people who conduct business within the frontiers of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Roaming is simply the use of your mobile in a foreign network but with your regular network provider charging you. Roaming allows a subscriber to receive and make calls without having to switch to a local network or buy a new SIM. A Communicators Regulators’ Association of Southern Africa (CRASA) 2010 study indicates that customers in certain countries of the regional economic community (REC) were paying up to 200 times for data roaming over the price of domestic charges. Voice roaming customers are reported to cough up to 10 times the domestic charge once they crossed borders. Way back in 2008, a resolution of ministers in the trading bloc was made to slash mobile roaming costs by 66 percent, a move that was applauded by stakeholders.
CRASA, a SADC-mandated body of telecoms regulators in the regional states, was tasked with the responsibility to implement the directive. Thirteen years down the line, this is still on the cards, beckoning for action. Full-fledged action in this regard is still pending.
Despite the fact that this move would definitely bring relief to customers, there is another side to the coin. Mobile operators have partially resisted SADC’s efforts through CRASA to push roaming charges down, claiming that various ‘special costs’ are factored into roaming as opposed to domestic service.
This notion has not sat well with critics who maintain that operators were deliberately complicating issues to make a quick buck and enhance their revenue.
It has come to light that CRASA had requested for more time to implement the resolution on the tariffs. The delay has been necessitated by the need to produce a harmonised cost model for roaming, which would guide national regulators on the caps to place on mobile operators. However, since the 2008 resolution, operators in a number of countries in the region have reduced their roaming roaming charges by up to 33 percent. In 2015, mobile operators in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia, for instance, agreed to reduce roaming tariffs as part of a pilot roaming project. The mobile operators participating in the pilot project resolved to make the necessary arrangements to implement a glide path, including amending their bilateral roaming agreements, in particular the inter-operator tariffs for all roaming services.
The participating member states also agreed that wholesale and retail tariffs will be reduced annually, in line with the glide path as approved by the SADC information and communication ministers.
Participants at the meeting, which was held in Namibia, further resolved that operators will not be forced to go into reduced tariff agreements with operators in countries not participating in the pilot project. However, other member states wishing to participate were welcome. It remains to be seen whether these resolutions are being followed to the letter. It was also agreed that the quality of services should be addressed as it is extremely important, adding that roaming customers should enjoy the same quality of service as national customers when roaming.
A recommendation was made that a regional clearing house should be established to ensure lower costs for roaming in the region. ‘’Regional mobile telephony roaming plays a strategic role in accelerating regional integration and economic development in the region,” the meeting observed at the time.
A meeting of ICT ministers which took place in Durban, South Africa, in 2017 raised renewed calls for operators to reduce roaming costs or do away with them altogether. Some loopholes in regulation have given leeway to some operators in the region to charge consumers exorbitant fees over the years.
Although roaming fees represent a huge chunk of revenue for operators, they need to be reduced, the GSMA has proposed.
‘’Roaming represents sizeable revenue streams for a number of SADC operators. While postpaid roaming is relatively well established in SADC, prepaid roaming in the region continues to be hampered by technical and market challenges, including difficulty in establishing roaming partners, high levels of testing complexity and high upfront costs,”says a regulatory impact assessment study on SADC ‘Home and Away’ roaming.
Movement on the roaming front has been visibly slow despite the apparent political will to achieve this end. According to the GSMA, the economic and societal integration of the region implied that high roaming charges are becoming more and more difficult to justify. The region should be treated as a single economic entity and that means the reduction (and eventually removal) of roaming charges, but there should be some calculated steps along the way. “We’re looking at the SADC region and we’re looking at economic integration. There must be free movement of people and services,” the GSMA asserts.