Taking Stock Kudzanai Sharara
Imagine waking up one day not being able to go on the Internet, Zimbabweans know the feeling very well, with the country having gone through an Internet shutdown earlier this year — it’s not on. But at least that time, people could make calls and transact, though with a little bit of restriction on the latter.
Losing the internet has also been experienced before, with the country having experienced a service disruption in December 2017. Like what happened this year, the loss of internet connectivity affected popular social media applications and fixed line communications due to faults on the main links between South Africa and Harare, according to a Government official at that time.
There was a similar experience again this week on Monday, when one of the country’s biggest telecoms company, Econet, had a serious challenge across its network. Some customers could not make calls, browse mobile data or use services that require USSD, such as EcoCash and purchasing of bundles.
While the internet shutdown in the past was across all networks including TelOne and other internet service providers, the one on Monday only affected Econet.
Under normal circumstances, it would have been easy to dismiss this as a problem between a private mobile network provider and its customers.
Failure to make calls through Econet could also have been easily dismissed as there are alternative means of making calls, it was not a total blackout.
But when you then think of the mobile payment platform, which also went down, along with the ability to make phone calls, you begin to appreciate the magnitude of the challenge the country had on Monday.
Putting things into perspective, Econet controls 78 percent of the country’s voice tariff market share, it also controls 65 percent of the country’s data traffic market share; and most importantly a further 97 percent market share in the mobile money market share.
The mobile money payment system itself also controls more than 80 percent of all electronic transactions in the country and the volumes and values transacted through the system run into billions of dollars.
The above statistics, clearly show that it’s a system that the country cannot afford to malfunction or not function at all as what happened Monday, the impact is priceless. But it happened Monday. An official statement from the company attributed the challenges experienced across its network on Monday to a serious network fault in Masvingo.
The company said the fault initially resulted in call failures in the Masvingo region only, but later escalated to a nation-wide problem following an abnormal surge in traffic, which led to instability on its key network systems.
What was, however, not emphasised is the statement that said, “the current foreign currency shortages in Zimbabwe made it difficult for the network to support its systems to levels which cater for unusual challenges such as a surge in traffic.” It went further and said “access to foreign currency would certainly enhance the robustness of these systems.”
Those words alone show the company was being economical with the truth. What is clear is that there is some important work that is not being done.
The telecoms industry is characterised by constant change and evolution and to keep pace telcos should always improve their services by continuous network upgrade. The bottom-line for every telecom operation is: improved services.
Subscribers desire better call completion ratio, lower call drop rates and call congestion as well as faster and more reliable upload and download of data. But every operator trying to achieve these must invest in new technology to give it an edge in the market.
To be where they are now, where they have made life more comfortable and kept us more connected is not a coincidence, that’s a result of many years of investment and technological upgrade.
Telecom companies face the constant need to invest in new infrastructure, while staying competitive on cellphone costs for customers.
Apart from expanding their footprint, telcos must always introduce newer and faster features to accommodate the increase in demand.
So a statement that “the current foreign currency shortages in Zimbabwe made it difficult for the network to support its systems to levels which cater for unusual challenges,” should be given the attention it deserves.
Granted the country is going through a crippling foreign currency, but the situation could have been worse if telcos had not invested in platforms that enable Zimbabweans to transact. The Government and the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe must always act to safeguard the evolution of Zimbabwe’s digital economy.
The Government should come up with policies that make sure that operators are not challenged to deliver on service, which is a critical element for Zimbabwe’s digital growth and financial inclusion.
Econet has been at the heart of Zimbabwe’s digital revolution, and apart from being an MNO, it has disrupted the way banking is done in this country. Many other ventures are being introduced by the day.
But for the company and any other telco for that matter to continue to disrupt different facets of the economy, it needs enablers such as the availability of foreign currency.
Companies must focus on core business and for telcos, focus should be on sharpening digitalisation, innovation and not be hindered by lack of foreign currency.