Give the ONE phone to MTN Swaziland
We are a small country in size but communications are not easy due to the state of the roads and the lack of a comprehensive transport system; yet easy communication among people is one of the key ingredients to a successful economy.
Unfortunately, though, the boo-ming mobile business seems to have halted the extension of land-based telephone lines, which may prove a hindrance as more information about the dangers of microwave-based communications come to light.
Today, almost everybody has access to long-distance communica-tions and the biggest challenge to the ordinary citizen in communica-ting has become the cost of commu-nicating. In Swaziland we have the highest mobile phone charges in the region and I think this is mostly because of our peculiar ‘piggy-back’ system – all MTN Swaziland calls have to be routed through SPTC infrastructure, requiring SPTC to be compensated. In my opinion, SPTC took advantage of this unusual arrangement to roll out the ONE ‘fixed’ mobile phone at a much cheaper cost to the user, which they could charge because they were essentially adding a surcharge to MTN Swaziland costs at the same time. My take on the Joint Venture Agreement coincides with that of the International Court of Arbi-tration; that SPTC was wrong to roll-out the ONE Fixedfone from the beginning.
However, it cannot be denied that the ONE phone was a very succe-ssful product and many people, particularly the poorest people in the poorest and remotest areas, have benefited hugely from it and the surprisingly good service that SPTC provided along with it.
Now that SPTC has been ordered to withdraw the phone, the nation is back to using the ‘piggy-back’ system with the associated ‘piggy-back’ costs. Until there is an independent communications regulator and while the provision of mobile phone service is reserved for one company – MTN Swaziland – this will remain the case and we will see a sudden halt to the expansion of the communications industry as people become more affected by the financial crisis.
It doesn’t seem as if this artificial situation can be sustained for long since both SPTC and MTN Swazi-land are chafing at the constraints of the Joint Venture Agreement (JVA). Eventually, the JVA will have to go and a new arrangement be made, hopefully one that sepa-rates SPTC and MTN Swaziland once and for all and allows a more competitive communications industry. In the meantime, I propose a Solomonic solution that may perhaps offset some of the damage caused to all parties by the ONE episode. As far as I see it, the ONE Fixedfone was an excellent pro-duct, well-conceived and marketed and of great benefit to the people. It’s introduction was a problem only because it broke the rules. Essenti-ally it was the right idea but in the wrong hands.
My suggestion is for the entire ONE Fixedfone operation to be kept intact but given to MTN Swaziland. It doesn’t need to be expanded but the current users could be allowed to continue as before. My reasoning is that the majority of people who use the ONE Fixedfone are those who would not be able to afford MTN calls and who would simply give up on mobile phone services, thus denying MTN Swaziland their revenue anyway. It doesn’t have to be indefinite of course, but even an extension of five years to operations would be of great national benefit in these straitened times, particularly to the remote poor in the rural areas. If necessary, users could be filtered out based on their earnings – perhaps those who earn enough to pay taxes can be considered earning enough to pay MTN Swaziland rates.
But this is just a short-term solution. In the long run what we need is independent communica-tions companies with their own infrastructure and gateways to the world outside, competing on a field kept level by an independent regulator. Then all communications costs will drop dramatically and the resultant ability to pass information along more easily will boost our economic potential tenfold.
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