The East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) has embarked on a process to gather information on possible challenges to inform appropriate recommendations that will help streamline implementation of the One Network Area (ONA) initiative and make it easier for people in the region to communicate.
Members of the Assembly’s Committee on Communication, Trade and Investment emphasized this on Wednesday as they held discussions with the telecoms' regulatory authority, telecom operators, civil society and other stakeholder representatives in Kigali.
The One Network Area is an initiative that establishes borderless mobile network coverage across the EAC region and that treats subscribers moving between the EAC member states as local subscribers that can make and receive calls at standard local call rates.
The lawmakers noted that the initiative is a cost-effective and user-friendly solution to the existing high cost and segregated access to communications services in the region.
They do not understand why, among others, Burundi and Tanzania have failed to embrace it, while the other four member states - Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan have already signed up.
MP Habib Mohamed Mnyaa stressed that their ongoing oversight activity to assess the status of implementation in the One Network Area in the telecommunication industry in the bloc will be crucial as the committee will later file a report that will enrich debate in the House.
Mnyaa said: “This initiative provides for uniform interstate calling, data and other value-added services rates. It is designed to meet customers’ requirements for affordable communications services in east Africa by serving as local subscribers when they are travelling across our region.”
In February 2015 the EAC Summit directed the Council of Ministers to expedite implementation of the framework for the harmonized roaming charges, including the removal of surcharges for international telecommunications traffic originating and terminating within the Community by July 15, 2015.
In their oversight activity, the lawmakers are asking for updates on the implementation of this Summit directive.
Besides assessing progress made by partner states in implementing the One Network Area, they are also inquiring about the current cost of calls in each country regarding roaming charges and cost of calls originating and ending within the region.
During Tuesday’s meeting, MP Jematiah Flowrence Sergon [Kenya] put Mnyaa, who is from Tanzania, on the spot to clarify why his country has always refused to come on board.
But the latter evaded the line of questioning and stressed that the purpose of their tour is to hear from local stakeholders so that they can later compile a report that guides the House’s next steps.
Mnyaa said: “This oversight activity will enable the Assembly to take stock of the achievements, challenges and opportunities in the initiative. It will also equip the Assembly with the requisite information to make appropriate recommendations aimed at streamlining the implementation of the One Area Network initiative and improving the telecommunication sector in the region.”
When the initiative was born, in 2014, its framework was such that it applies only to traffic originating and terminating within Northern Corridor Partner States – Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda – and the traffic would be exempted from surcharges on international traffic.
The idea was to harmonise roaming charges on voice calls followed by data charges at a later date.
Shedding light on the implementation process and other issues, Mathieu Ntegano, from the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority, noted that findings pointed to a “high disparity of applicable wholesale and retail rates among operators in the region.”
The regional retail tariff would also be capped at $10 cents per minute and the wholesale or inter operator tariff would be capped at $0.07 per minute (based on the minimum averages of countries). There would be no charges for receiving calls while roaming.
Kenya and Rwanda launched ONA in October 2014 while Uganda joined in January 2015, and South Sudan joined the arrangement in March 2015.
Ntegano said: “Today, I can’t keep my data on roaming while in Tanzania [and Burundi] but it is okay in South Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda. If we really agree that ICT is an enabler, then we need to give people the incentive of communication.”
Ntegano said that because roaming is cross border service it will require political effort to make it happen since no one country can make it alone.
He added: “Regional cooperation is highly required to deal with it. High level regional political commitment is key. Due to different legal and regulatory regimes in different countries harmonization of the existing legal and regulatory regimes is required.”
According to Ntegano, in countries that have not implemented ONA, “it is not a problem [caused by] telecom operators; it is the governments.”
Sarah Kabahuma of the East African Communications Organization (EACO) noted that in the four countries that implemented ONA, call costs are at $10 cents per minute. The challenge, she said, is with grey traffic – the use of illegal telephone exchanges for making international calls bypassing the legal routes and exchanges.
Regarding EACO’s recommendations, Kabahuma noted that besides the need to conduct an impact assessment to review ONA especially on price caps, feasibility and challenges, “Burundi and Tanzania should join.”
She added: “We should also expand ONA beyond the EAC to other regional economic blocs.”