INFORMATION and Communication Technology (ICT) minister Supa Mandiwanzira yesterday denied reports of bad blood between himself and Econet, but went on to take subtle digs at the company, when he appeared before the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on ICT, as the battle over data tariffs rages.
BY VENERANDA LANGA
“The relationship with Econet is not broken down. That was an unprecedented statement by Econet. It might not actually be anger on issues to do with telecoms, but it may be someone connected to Econet, who might have wanted to pronounce a United States President Donald Trump-style bid to stand for the presidency,” he said cryptically.
It was not clear who Mandiwanzira was referring to, although there has been always been speculation linking Econet proprietor, Strive Masiyiwa for a run for the presidency. Masiyiwa captured the nation’s imagination in December, when he said he had a big announcement to make, however, this turned out to be about an internship programme he was launching.
Mandiwanzira and Econet exchanged harsh statements in the aftermath of the telecommunications’ company’s decision to review its tariffs upwards earlier in the year.
The minister denied reports that the increase in tariffs was meant to stem protests that were being co-ordinated through social media, insisting telecommunications players had asked for the increase.
“Mobile operators have complained that they are losing revenue as a result of Skype, Facebook and WhatsApp because people used them to call instead of normal calling through network operators,” he said.
“Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) recommended a 2,5 cents per megabyte (MB) increase and Telecel was the first to implement the tariff hike and it did it smoothly and there was no complaint from its consumers. But the reality changed when Econet increased its floor price to 10 cents per MB and there was a public outcry.”
Parliament heard that use of social media was bleeding the telecoms industry, adding that between June and April last year, network operators lost 186 million minutes in voice revenue to Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook calling, with potential monetary loss being $26 million, while the loss to Potraz was $139 000 and to Treasury $4 million in taxes.
Mandiwanzira also dismissed claims of an uneven playing field raised by Econet.
“It is not true that they paid $137 million (in licence fees),” he said. “They paid part in cash and the balance was paid by the people of Zimbabwe through taxes because they were owed money by TelOne and NetOne and the government suggested to take over $60m.
“They cannot say they are treated unfairly – how many companies are owed money by parastatals and Treasury has not taken over the debt? Econet had the advantage of government taking over the $60m debt.”