The traditional model of single ownership of all the physical network elements and network layers by mobile network operators has been challenged by the government for some time now. This has been attributed to the rapid and complex technology migration compounded with rigorous regulatory requirements and ever increasing capital expenses.
However, much remains to be done to increase the penetration of mobile services, particularly in rural Zimbabwe. The problem arises from the high cost of network infrastructure. This leads to high prices, as operators seek to recover their investment.
Globally most telecommunications regulators and policy makers encourage infrastructure sharing. Last year the Government gazetted regulations which make it compulsory for mobile telecommunication operators to share infrastructure, a move which could cut costs by as much as 60 percent.
The regulations, which were gazetted as Statutory Instrument 137 of 2016, seek to eliminate ‘unnecessary duplication of telecommunication infrastructure’ by maximizing the use of existing and future telecommunication infrastructure.
The International Telecommunications Union categories mobile infrastructure sharing in two; passive sharing and active sharing. Passive sharing is where network operators share physical installations (buildings, sites, masts) while maintaining separate networks. Active sharing, on the other hand, involves an operator making use of other operator’s network in areas where it does not have the infrastructure or network coverage of its own. This is done through national roaming, sharing radio access networks and reducing subscriber acquisition costs.
The mobile telecoms landscape in Zimbabwe is different and warrants a different approach to implementing infrastructure sharing, given that one of the three operators owns up to 80% of infrastructure. Econet has in the past refused mobile infrastructure sharing, stating that, “It is unfair to compel sharing of infrastructure, where one party does not have the infrastructure that the other needs.”
Econet argued that infrastructure sharing being suggested was not feasible and went on to question the legality of it stating, “It is a disguised, unconstitutional form of compulsory acquisition of our infrastructure.”
However, Econet has changed its mind saying it has agreed to share its fixed infrastructure as long as its competitors are prepared to foot maintenance costs on an equal basis.
Speaking at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Zimbabwe (ICAZ) Winter School in Victoria Falls, Econet chief executive Mr. Douglas Mboweni said the company was already sharing some infrastructure with Telecel.
“We are still adhering to the principle that we should share infrastructure but that must be in a viable manner. Our position hasn’t changed, the principle is that we share infrastructure at equitable levels where if one builds in Gutu, there is no need for the next player to go to the same area but should build infrastructure in another district and we share using that model of equity in a one-for-one scenario,” he said.
The focus is on how this could generate economic growth, improve quality of life and help developing and developed countries to meet the objectives of the World Summit on the Information Society and the Millennium Development Goals established by the United Nations.
Mboweni urged competing players to borrow and develop their infrastructure and share equally with other industry counterparts.
“On the whole issue of infrastructure development, we are saying guys if we were all as creative as well as bold, why can’t we have other operators go and borrow and develop in other areas? Why is it that we are saying if you want fibre, go to Econet if you want a tower go to Econet? What do I get from you? So this issue of equity, even natural laws, there is fairness and justice that must be maintained,” he said
Most countries promote the sharing of passive infrastructure by mobile operators. The aim is to maximize use of existing network resources, including capacity, base stations, and backbone facilities.