Econet, minister trade blows over Zim data tariff hikes


"Mobile data"

HARARE - Zimbabwe’s biggest telecoms company by subscriber numbers has literally taken the war to the communications minister as the data tariffs saga takes a nasty turn.

Econet has accused ICT Minister Supa Mandiwanzira of “inconstitency and duplicity”, at the same time urging the government to “move decisively against the capture of this all-important industry by an individual [Mandiwanzira]”.

“Since his appointment to the ministry he has behaved as if he is the minister of the government-owned entities alone, and has been relentlessly attacking us without just cause and reversing the gains that this sector has made over the years,” Econet said in a statement.

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The company defended its seemingly higher tariffs, saying “being the only operator that has paid the punitive licence renewal fee of US$137.5-million (R1.85-billion) and being the only operator that is owed millions of dollars by government-owned competitors in respect of interconnection charges, our pricing structures are bound to be more expensive than those of our government-owned competitors”.

The accusations follow an uproar by both subscribers and the government after Econet hiked its voice and data tariffs. Two weeks ago, the country's Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) set floor prices for data and voice calls.

Potraz said this was after meetings with all three mobile operators – Econet, Telecel Zimbabwe and NetOne. Telecel and NetOne are state-owned entities.

Econet then “complied” with the set tariffs and hiked its tariffs to $2 cents per MB of data and $12 cents per minute voice call, after which subscribers complained that the charge was too high.

Mandiwanzira immediately issued a statement that he had directed an immediate suspension of the tariff hike. He described the hike as “unparalleled and extortionist”, saying it was “gluttonous corporate greed”.

This seemed to be a veiled attack on Econet as it was the only firm that had hiked tariffs, with the other two saying they were in talks with the regulator and would hike if need be.

But following the direct attack by Econet on Saturday, Mandiwanzira warned the mobile firm that its statement was “highly political and defamatory”.

“The political undertones of the statement, which takes a dig at the Ministry of ICT, Postal and Courier Services and myself, are alarming. I urge the company to stay away from politics and stick to its core mandate of business,” he said.

“Rather than attack the minister and the government it is advisable that Econet should address concerns by its subscribers who are and have been losing money through seemingly fraudulent billing that makes data credit disappear even when subscribers have not used it. These complaints have come to my office, Potraz, and are widely shared on social media.

“It may also be in their best interests to explain to their subscribers why their new tariffs were far higher than the floor price which they claim to have been complying to,” he said.

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Mandiwanzira said that had it not been for Potraz, Econet would have charged far more than the tariffs it eventually implemented.

“I would also like to advise that, instead of issuing statements attacking government and my person, the company must take responsibility for its active role in seeking to draw more revenue from its subscribers, details of which are now public knowledge.

“It is also on record that Econet top management have been to my office, not only once, pleading that I do not approve proposals to decrease tariffs and that they be increased instead because its business was suffering and on the verge of being called out by European banks from which they have received loans,” Mandiwanzira said.