Calling and sending text messages across African borders are set to become cheaper following a decision by regional integration blocs to abolish roaming charges.
The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the East African Community (EAC) are working on mechanisms that will see up to 40 African countries harmonise roaming charges across the board.
This was revealed at the 10th meeting of the Ministers of the 19 Comesa countries in Lusaka.
“Although the pricing of voice services in many African countries was becoming competitive and comparable with the rest of the world, the cost of broadband continued to be out of reach for most people,” said the ministers’ report.
The Association of Regulators of Information and Communications for Eastern and Southern Africa was asked to conduct studies on reducing the roaming charges across Comesa countries so that a decision can be taken at the next meeting.
At the same time, the Ecowas resolved to abolish mobile phone roaming fees from the beginning of 2018. The decision was reached at a meeting of ministers in charge of ICT from the regional bloc in the Cape Verdean capital, Praia.
The 15th meeting of the Ecowas ministers approved the revised Draft Supplementary Act on Universal Access and Services, along with several other documents designed to boost the development of ICT and regional integration.
Single digital market
Africa has one of the highest roaming fees in the world. For instance, a Nigerian on roaming in Europe pays five times less than they would while on roaming within the Ecowas.
The ministers said the Praia Resolution was part of the bloc’s efforts to establish a single digital market.
Zambia, Bostwana, and Zimbabwe — have also agreed on a pilot project to lower roaming charges. All the mobile operators in the member states have commenced the necessary arrangements to implement their agreed roaming agreements.
The industry telecommunication regulator said the wholesale and retail tariffs will be reduced annually in line with a glide path approved by ICT ministers from southern Africa.
Already Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda have harmonised their calling charges under the One Network Area (ONA). Calls within this network have already been slashed by 12 US cents per minute while there are no charges for incoming calls since implementation of the ONA in 2015.
Burundi and Tanzania are yet to join the ONA but the two are working on a mechanism to harmonise the roaming rates.
Safaricom and Airtel reduced their voice roaming charges by 60 per cent, leading to increased communication across the region.
And so has Ethiopia, even though it is not a member of the EAC.
South Sudan is already part of ONA, making all charges for calls between the countries equivalent to local calls. This has led to a minimum 400 per cent increase in volume of calls — a direct benefit to EAC citizens and African businesses operating across the region’s borders.
Previously, making calls across the EAC was more expensive than calling any other continent.
Roaming charges are an important source of revenue for telecoms companies.
Manage roaming charges
The ONA is a regional framework comprising countries that have agreed to waive or manage roaming charges and other surcharges on telecommunications traffic.
When executed, the One Africa Network will see calling rates reduce dramatically across the continent. One can only imagine the multiple opportunities this portends for growth, inclusion and development.
Experts say a growth of over five per cent, coupled with the availability of cheap phones and increased integration of services via mobile phones including money transfer and Internet usage will see a marked increase in traffic.
Communications Authority of Kenya data indicates that Kenyans now make more calls within East Africa following the scrapping of taxes on incoming voice calls by the Rwandan and Ugandan governments.
Across Comesa, studies have shown that Malawians spend more than $12 (£7.70) a month on mobile phones, the minister noted.
“This is more than half of what the ordinary Malawian earns in a month which is very expensive,” the Ministers noted.
There was general concern over the high mobile termination and roaming charges. They noted that although mobile phones had provided new sources of originating international traffic, it was also more expensive to terminate traffic on mobile networks.
The ministers noted that there is general concern regarding high mobile termination and roaming charges. There seem to be no transparency in coming up with roaming charges which are seemingly high.
Terminate traffic on mobile networks
Although mobile phones had provided new sources of originating international traffic, it is also frequently more expensive to terminate traffic on mobile networks
They urged Comesa members to emulate other groupings in Africa and beyond in offering reduced roaming and termination charges.
They cited the case of the EAC, which has eliminated roaming and termination charges and the European Union where mobile operators no longer charge additional fees on customers for using their phones within the EU.
“The ICT regulators are encouraged to carry out studies on interconnection rates and reduce or eliminate the roaming charges,” said the Ministers.
“Member states are encouraged to invest in the Fibre Technology to The Home to increase capacity and provide excellent quality.”
The ministers observed that despite substantial investments in network infrastructure in the recent years, Africa lacked a robust network connectivity and high-quality, affordable Internet access.
Comesa countries represent over 37 per cent of Internet users in Africa, while Africa represents seven per cent of the world’s Internet users, meaning that Comesa constitutes 2.5 per cent of the world’s population of the Internet users.
In their decision, which is binding on all the Comesa countries, the Ministers called for regulations to encourage investment among the Virtual Mobile Network Operators (MVNOs) to enhance competition and increase access.
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Additional reporting by Kemo Cham, Africa Review.