Look into regional roaming cost challenges as a matter of urgency

Since the beginning of last month, roaming charges for calls by some of the mobile network operators in the region have been slightly above the negotiated retail price cap of USD 10 cents per minute under the One Network Area (ONA) arrangement.

This has, understandably, caused some alarm among the travelling consumers, especially noting it’s only three years since the launch of the ONA initiative in 2015.

The initiative brings together Northern Corridor countries, including Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Rwanda. Tanzania and Burundi are expected to join the ONA at a later date.

Some of us frequently crossing the borders had hoped the initiative would by now have been close to attaining the “roam like at home (RLAH)” goal similar to the European Union.

Under the European RLAH rules that became applicable in June 2017, you pay exactly the same price for using mobile services – calling, sending text messages and using data – when travelling in the EU as you would in your home country in the expansive economic community.

So far in East Africa only calling and sending SMS are included under the One Network Area arrangement. But one can imagine the boon in cost-saving, even if only in calls under the RLAH.

This is in addition to subscribers enjoying seamless, high-quality service whether at home or away, with border-crossing no longer interfering with or restricting connectivity.

However, the cause for alarm by local consumers at the increased cost – however little the increase may seem – is worth some probing.

A 2016 analysis of the East African one network area by the International Telecommunications Union found the ONA “working well.”

It commended it as a “worthwhile undertaking [that] should be extended to other countries in Africa and beyond.”

By 2017, with the EAC predictably serving as an example, the various regional economic blocs on the continent were expressing intent to abolish roaming charges during their discussions at the 10th meeting of Comesa Ministers in Lusaka, Zambia.

The blocs, including the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the EAC, engaged to work on mechanisms to see up to 40 African countries harmonise roaming charges across the board.

It is a continental initiative towards the envisioned One Africa Network, even as the continent at large works on its connectivity challenges to reach deeper and wider.

According to GSMA 2018 Mobile Connectivity Index, the score for Sub-Saharan Africa is 39, compared to the global average of 60 out of 100. The index is based on four enablers and the level of their attainment, namely, infrastructure, affordability, consumer readiness, and content and services.

In these, the continent continues to register improvement each passing year, with the expectation that roaming under the One Africa Network will see calling rates reduce dramatically across the continent.

Against this background, the gains in East Africa under the ONA arrangement should not only live up to the region’s billing but mollify its concerned consumers.

In addition, it should be instructive why any challenges experienced in the ONA should occasion a rise in costs, if not appear to unravel its excellent example. The experience should illuminate on the possible pitfalls for the rest of the regional blocs as we collectively work towards the continental network area.

Among the conclusions in the ITU analysis was the observation that the East African “ONA highlights the problem of grey traffic but it is not the cause. The cause is the wide gap between domestic and international tariffs, which rewards call origin fraud.”

Aside from the grey traffic issue, it however noted, ONA is working well.

Grey traffic describes fraudulent bypassing of legal gateways that terminate and originate international calls or data to avoid applicable taxes or regulatory fees.

Going by the recent local media reports on the issue, especially if we take into consideration the two years that have elapsed since the 2016 ITU conclusions, it is this problem that seems to have compounded some of the factors compromising effective implementation of the ONA initiative.

This has had the effect, as expressed by some of the mobile network operators in the region, of necessitating revision of their service costs thus the slight increase.

However, there are encouraging reports of ongoing efforts to address the concerns at the regional level, with these expected to be among the top of the agenda in the next Northern Corridor Summit.

We should, therefore, expect the rise in roaming cost is only temporary. We should likewise expect any challenges should be looked into as a matter of urgency for the benefit of both the consumers and businesses.

Twitter: @gituram

The views expressed in this article are of the author.