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4 Sadc countries scrap cellphone roaming charges


The Southern African Development Community (Sadc) is getting close to realising a One Network Area after four countries — Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana — agreed to remove cellphone roaming charges from August. 

The move raises hope of establishing a single digital market while ensuring increased mobile service affordability, especially for cross-border customers.Customers in the region will no longer incur extra charges to access mobile phone services even when they cross borders, according to a report by television news channel DW.“The development is important for the region for many reasons,” said Marks Setshwane, Botswana’s communications regulatory authority’s director of business and development.

“It is a model of regional integration that we have managed to achieve as Sadc. We are small economies, but there is always power in numbers,” he said.The development is critical not only for the region but also for continent-wide efforts to realise the Smart Africa Alliance objectives.

The Smart Africa Alliance is an initiative of 37 heads of State on the continent seeking to establish a digital knowledge economy by removing obstacles to digitalisation such as internet affordability, standard call rates and messaging charges. 

In a March 2023 World Bank blog, Baidy Sy, a digital development specialist, wrote that collaborative initiatives promise to lower barriers to trade and communication.“It will, for instance, make the internet faster and more accessible. Content and services, hosted on local data centres, will be cheaper to download because they won’t go through expensive international connections,” he noted.

Regional economic blocs are leading in establishing a common framework for a unified digital market. The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), through a programme focusing on information and communications technology, is implementing the One Network Area to drive digital trade. 

The Comesa bloc plans to merge and align roaming networks in 29 countries with other regional blocs by 2024.Moreover, other regional blocs, such as West Africa’s Ecowas and the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (Cemac), have already demonstrated a commitment to eliminating roaming charges, while East Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan and, more recently, Tanzania, are leading the way with a functional framework that allows for standard roaming charges across their borders.

Reports show plans are afoot to include Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the East African Community’s One Network Area, to increase the programme’s scope.Sy said beyond communications, a single digital market could open up extensive opportunities in other sectors such as banking and healthcare, because it will enhance connections between businesses and clients.

“Connections to neighbouring countries, to regions, and to the entire continent are key to sparking economic growth, creating jobs, and moving Africa into the digital age,” he says.The Africa Information & Communication Technologies Alliance, a private sector-led alliance of information and communications technology associations and key players, has seen a surge in its membership, reflecting increased investment in regional and cross-border infrastructure and frameworks.

All of these efforts align with the vision of the Digital Single Market — an African Union-led plan to transform Africa into a digitally empowered continent that can securely access affordable internet, by 2030.

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