The less cost-conscious telephone subscribers on networks that subscribed to the Northern Corridor One Network Area may not have even noticed that that they were paying more to make calls to numbers in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan.
That could be because, contrary to the fanfare that accompanied the commencement of harmonised calling rates within the zone back in February 2015, the ONA was suspended without any formality.
When the questions began to arise, the spokespersons of the region’s mobile phone networks were running about like headless chickens because all it took was for one member to suspend the protocols for the systems to fall back to their pre-2015 default position.
Although it is likely to be seen as another blow to the integration project, this case is unique because it has nothing to do with politics or even governments.
The ONA emanates from one of those rare, heady moments when business led the way to give citizens a tangible benefit through constructive co-operation.
Faced with an Airtel (formerly Celtel and Zain) that was giving its customers cheap roaming across African national borders, the competition sat down and agreed to the principles that actualised the ONA in 2015.
Although the EAC Sectoral Committee on Transport and Communication had discussed something similar and the responsible ministers were to formally ratify the arrangement, business jumped the gun.
As a result, a formal agreement about roaming within the region is yet to be ratified at the EAC level.
In that sense, one could argue that the region has just witnessed the longest pilot of something that promised so much. To take an optimistic view, the hitch in harmonisation of calling rates should be seen as an opportunity rather than a setback because it has exposed the bugs that need to be eliminated for regional citizens to enjoy seamless services.
A major obstacle to uniform telephone tariffs around the region, revolves around the disharmony in tax policies relating to particular industries across national borders and the revenue expectations of individual governments from particular sectors. As its neighbours went easy on tax rates on telecom services, Uganda introduced a higher levy.
The resulting gap reversed revenue flows, culminating in an annual loss close to $100 million. To plug the loss, Kampala installed a system that in the course of plugging the loophole has triggered a backlash that threatens the velocity of telecom services.
Over the course of the remaining weeks of the year, the regional partners will be meeting to try and restore normalcy. For enduring results, it will be necessary for the meetings to look at the issues realistically.
Spurious traffic is a reality. But as the International Telecommunications Union concludes in one of its studies on the East African Community One Network Area, the initiative is not the cause but rather tariff gaps, occasioned by discordant taxes across national borders.