The high cost of roaming within the SADC region has come under the spotlight at a Ministers of Communications and ICT meeting taking place in Durban, with renewed calls for operators to reduce roaming costs in southern Africa or do away with them altogether.
Loopholes in regulations have led to some operators taking advantage of consumers by charging them exorbitant amounts for roaming, with some South Africans paying as much as R5 more per minute when roaming in countries like Swaziland and Botswana, according to an Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) official.
Those who have travelled across the borders of South Africa to various SADC countries will be familiar with the high bills that follow them after making cross border calls.
However, if the Ministers, from the 15 SADC Member States, who have been meeting in Durban since Monday have their way, these costs could soon be slashed by up to 30%. The Ministers’ meeting is discussing the development of ICT infrastructure in the SADC region in line with the goal of achieving the so-called Digital SADC.
The high cost of cross border calls is seen as a hindrance in economic development and the movement of people within SADC, something which is also a threat to the goal of regional integration.
“We are making progress, but it’s not going to be easy. As you know, if you travel from country to country, what they charge you for making a call is an excessive amount of money and you normally get a bill shock for roaming. We want to change that,” said ICASA Councillor Peter Zimri.
The SADC “roam like at home” initiative wants to convince operators to allow consumers to pay charges as close as they would have paid in their home countries. The initiative was signed in 2007 by SADC Ministers of Communication but is yet to be fully operationalised.
“For us as South Africa, achieving low roaming charging for calls is important not only for attracting visitors to our country but it’s also important for cross border trade. What we have established in this project is that there are areas where have dropped the costs substantially by up to 60 percent on certain routes.
“As a result of the drop in certain routes, what we have also noticed is that there has been an increase in traffic in those routes because it has become cheap to communicate so that is the essence of this ‘roam like at home’ initiative and we want to spread it to all SADC countries,” Zimri said.
Speaking to SAnews ahead of a marathon meeting last night to discuss roaming costs, Communications Minister Ayanda Dlodlo also weighed in on the issue of costs, saying generally, the cost of communication within SADC needs to be looked at.
Minister Dlodlo said it would be difficult for SADC countries to embrace the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution if communication within the region is not eased up.
“We are not only concerned about the cost of data or roaming, but the cost of communication in general within SADC. There are quite a few issues we are discussing and at the centre of this are costs that people have to bear as they communicate with one another in the SADC region,” the Minister said.
She said the meeting in Durban will propose strategies on how to do away with the high costs that affect people who have to communicate when they are away from home.
“We are also looking at issues of digitisation and the whole range of issues such as making sure that people have access to the internet at reasonable costs and the massive role out of broadband in all SADC countries.”
The issue of spectrum has been singled out as the main reason behind the high data costs in South Africa. The country has not fully addressed the issue of licensing spectrum and ICASA says it is only when South Africa allocates more spectrum and introduces more competition that costs may come down. ICASA has launched an official inquiry into the matter. But this explanation is little consolation for consumers who have to dig deep in their pockets in order to stay connected.
State Information Technology Agency (SITA) Head of Innovation and Research, Daniel Mashao, agreed that if more spectrum is freed and allocated to different operators, the costs may eventually come down.
Mashao said the high cost of data may also be reduced by the emergence of new technology.
“I do think the issue of data cost will in the next five years come down, as it gets affected by satellite technology. We are talking about 4G now and 5G is coming. So there is a lot of technology that is affecting the costs in a positive way. It is not going to remain a problem forever,” Mashao said.