Local business people, especially those who import goods from within the East African Community (EAC) have for long complained about the huge roaming fees they incur whenever doing business in the region.
The situation got out of hand when subscribers were even charged for incoming calls when abroad. But this could soon end after regional authorities mooted plans to either scrap, or reduce and harmonise the rates to ease business across the EAC. BUSINESS TIMES’ Frank Kanyesigye examines the new development.
In a bid to boost cross-border business, the Information Communication and Technology (ICT) authorities from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan are set to reduce the unpopular costly mobile phone roaming charges.
The development will see roaming voice and data fees reduced to enable subscribers to use their phones more on trips outside their different countries.
Last month, business people and local telecoms operators called for the scrapping of fees on regional calls, saying the charges were increasing the cost of doing business across the region.
Last week, ICT ministers from the four regional countries met in Kenyan capital Nairobi to examine the integration of ICT infrastructure in East Africa, and jointly find ways of reducing the cost of roaming voice and data charges.
EAC citizens are facing a challenge of making and receiving calls while on trips outside their respective countries, especially those using SIM cards that operate on more than one network within their home country.
How much is the roaming fee?
According to Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency’s (Rura) review of fees on roaming services done last year, any person calling an operator in Rwanda from, say Uganda, is charged 22 US cents (Rwf144.3) per minute up from 9 US cents (Rwf59). Rwandans part with Rwf120 to call Uganda and Rwf350 to Burundi.
In June, Uganda introduced a sh7 tariff, Tanzania (sh10) on roaming calls, meaning that any calls made by a Rwandan when roaming or directly from Rwanda are subjected to taxes.
Traders speak out
“We are struggling to keep our phones on whenever we are conducting business in neighbouring countries. Whenever I am in Uganda and make a call to Rwanda, I am charged heavily. Sometimes I am forced to buy a local SIM card to reduce on costs,” Alexis Habimana, a trader in Kigali’s Quartier Matheus, said.
He said that switching his local SIM card in favour of a foreign SIM to avoid expensive roaming charges disrupts his business “because my known number will be off until I return to Rwanda”.
The move by the EAC authorities could revitalise the region’s telecoms sector and help promote investment in the industry.
The harmonisation of call rates is key as the EAC economic sector increasingly depends on faster broadband connections.
Habimana said there is a need to define wholesale and retail prices for roaming charges to enable travellers stay connected on their local networks while on business trips in the region.
The roaming charges cuts will help market leaders MTN Rwanda and Indian telecom giant Airtel retain their “mid- to-high-end customers.”
Aurore Batamuriza, an importer of second hand clothes in Nyabugogo market, said on several occasions she had refused to pick her clients’ calls while in Kenya and Uganda, saying that she is charged whenever she receives or makes a call while roaming.
“The government should help address this challenge and push for considerable reductions to allow us to freely switch operators in the region,” she noted.
But the EAC governments’ plan to scrap roaming charges may encounter stiff resistance from telecom companies, which claim that the charges are crucial for profitability, and so to their investment plans.
François Regis Gatarayiha, the director-general of Rura, said the ministers agreed to set up a technical committee that will discuss ways of reducing phone roaming charges, as well as remove extra costs. “For us we can’t determine the roaming charges in the whole region, we only regulate the interconnection prices.
“We are going to be part of the technical sub-committee and I look at it as harmonisation of the telecom industry in East Africa,” he noted.
“We are going to fully examine the initiative and, if it doesn’t work for us, we will not accept any changes. The most important thing is to harmonise the rates and allow people to freely switch operators while abroad.”
What has been done so far to ease the charges
However, Jean Philbert Nsengimana, the minister for Youth and ICT, said the EAC countries are looking at a possibility of boosting the growth of telecom sector and enhance cross-border trade.
“We are finding ways on how we can reduce on call roaming charges because they have become costly to EAC citizens. We were in Nairobi last week to discuss it, and agreed to set up a technical committee to review taxes charged on calls and have a common position by February,” he stated.
Kenyan ICT Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’I and Uganda’s ICT minister, John Nasasira, attended the meeting.