The prohibitive roaming call rates have caused discomfort among the business community and ordinary Rwandans who want to communicate with friends and relatives across the region. The Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency's (Rura) and other telecom regulators in the EAC reviewed roaming call rates, meaning that when one calls someone in Uganda, for example, they are charged and the other person's is also 'cut'. BEN GASORE and Peterson Tumwebaze examine the issue
after suffering for months in silence under the burden of prohibitive roaming call rates subscribers, especially business people, and local telecoms operators are now calling for the scrapping of fees on regional calls.
Mobile phone users and telecom operators are feeling the pinch following last year's review of fees on roaming services by sector regulator, Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency's (Rura). After the review, Rura introduced a fee where any person calling an operator in Rwanda is charged 22 US cents (Rwf144.3) per minute up from 9 US cents (Rwf59).
The development has also increased the cost of doing business in the region, laments Mugabo, an importer of secondhand clothes in Nyarugenge. "When I call my suppliers, they charge me and also deduct airtime fees. This is making it hard for us to do business," he said.
The regulations affected costs for all incoming international calls for mobile phone users in Rwanda and also those in Diaspora. "The increase in taxes meant rates for people calling from other countries went up - by that additional amount," explained Yvonne Manzi Makolo, the chief marketing officer at MTN Rwanda.
Makolo said the situation was complicated when Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania telecom regulators imposed the same tax, which made it very expensive for their customers to make calls to those countries.
"It used to cost Rwf60 to call Uganda and Burundi, now it is around Rwf120 to call Uganda and Rwf350 to Burundi because they increased their rates to 35 US cents. Before we were absorbing the 9 US cents, but is now impossible to absorb the 22 US cents and 35 US cents increments imposed in the countries," she explained.
"So we have to charge our customers to receive calls because other customers from the East African Community (EAC) region coming to Rwanda are charged by their operators," she said. She noted that Kenya is the only country that has not yet introduced the taxes in the East African Community.
She wondered why the EAC is 'restricting' communication when it is pushing for regional integration and ease of doing business. "Telecom regulators in the region should examine this issue urgently to make it easy for people to roam freely," Makolo said.
In October, the EAC secretariat said it would invite telecom operators in the region and task them to explain the hike in roaming rates across the Community. The meeting is yet to take place. Steve Gasana, the Airtel Rwanda roaming interconnect and carrier business manager, said it was urgent that regional telecom regulators reduce the fees to ease communication, especially in the region.
"The voice calls traffic to Burundi drastically went down when the new taxes were implemented. Imagine it's now cheaper to receive a call from India than Burundi?" Gasana said reducing the rates would mean more calls within the region, resulting into increased revenues for telecom operators and EAC member states.
Prudence Sebahizi, the co-ordinator of the East African Community Civil Platform, said while the Common Market Protocol allows for free movement of goods and services, communication in the region has become very expensive.
Enos Bukuku, the EAC deputy secretary general for planning infrastructure, last month said the secretariat would come up with a model that will make roaming and international calling seamless. "We are going to call the operators and governments to discuss this issue. "We want a model that will make roaming and international calls seamless, as well as affordable in the region," Bukuku said.
Ironically, Rura admits, saying that high roaming tariffs by telecommunication companies have "gone beyond control". François Gatarayiha, the director-general of Rura, said that they were finding it difficult to regulate the high tariffs.
"We have brought this concern to the East African Community secretariat to engage regulators to talk to their operators in the industry and address the issue, but we are still waiting," Gatarayiha said during the East African policy debate in Kigali recently.
He noted that efforts to regulate cross border telecom services always hit a snag due to bill shocks negotiated between different industry players in the region. "Our mandate only stops at retail interconnection tariffs and not roaming tariffs. However, we do recognise that these tariffs are very high."