Harare - Zimbawe's new floor prices for data services could be an attempt to boost state coffers, or government's way of curbing free speech through social media, according to analysts.
Zimbabwe’s telecoms regulator the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz), which set up floor prices for data services last week, claimed it has done so to ensure consistent and sustainable long-term provision of services to all Zimbabweans.
Responding to the public outcry on why the regulator was putting prices up instead of allowing players to compete, as was the case prior to the new directive, Potraz said it has a mandate in terms of the Postal and Telecommunications Act to ensure sustainable and consistent provision of domestic and international telecommunication services.
The authority added that its intention in setting floor prices is to maintain a delicate balance between service affordability by consumers and operator viability.
Zimbabweans also questioned Potraz’s decision to encourage operators to suggest a premium on specific OTT services such as WhatsApp calls, at a time government through the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe is calling for internal devaluation in an attempt to reduce the cost of doing business.
The new floor prices, which now leave most data packages at higher tariffs, also come at a time when the country’s educational sector has introduced new rules and a new curriculum that requires significant access to data services.
Last year the Ministry of Education introduced an e-enrolment system to be used by all parents to apply for high school education for children who have completed their primary school education. The ministry also introduced a curriculum which will likewise require access to internet services for teachers and parents, as well as pupils.
Despite Potraz’s efforts to respond to questions from concerned parties, some analyst and commentators have said the latest move is government’s way of curbing free speech through the social media.
In 2016 Zimbabweans, led by activists, used social media to air their grievances, criticise and eventually mobilise citizens to demonstrate against government.
In July 2016, Pastor Evan Mawarire used social media platforms to air grievances and mobilise Zimbabweans to take to the streets to demonstrate against President Robert Mugabe’s government, which they accused of failing to deal with the country’s economic decline. The demonstrations, mobilised through the hashtag #shutdownzim2016, jolted the Zimbabwean government, which reacted by using brutal force to deal with the demonstrators.
The question now is whether Potraz is genuine in its responses or if it is just a PR gimmick.
“There can only be two things: either government is trying to boost its coffers, or it wants to stifle Zimbabweans from using social media to the same effect as last,” said analyst Walter Mandeya.
“There is also a possibility that government is looking at generating more revenue from mobile operators, given the decline in revenues over the last few years as operators engaged in price wars. Listed operator Econet Zimbabwe saw its taxes to government come down to $28.2m in 2016 from $64.9m in 2013,” said Mandeya.