The advent of the mobile phone was hailed as the best thing to have happened to the world of communication. For the 'dot.com' generation, it is inconceivable how life was before the mobile phone age.
Everything seems to rotate around the mobile phone today; even marriages are made and broken on the mobile phone. Thanks to the mobile phone the distance between people and countries has been narrowed, if not eliminated.
The last ten years have seen an unprecedented growth in mobile phone penetration in Rwanda and the region. Figures from the Rwanda Regulatory Authority (Rura) show that mobile phone penetration increased from 5.9 million in January to 6.6 million in July, this year.
But as the mobile phone increasingly becomes a must have in this era, it has come with its own challenges. I will stick to mobile phone within the region.
It's a no-brainer to realise that roaming, especially in the region, is becoming a very expensive venture. I happened to cross the Ugandan border a week ago with my phone fully activated. I can't remember the number of times I had to replenish my phone with airtime during my short stay in the country, or else I would not even receive a call.
Even receiving calls is charged!
For some time now the issue of increasing roaming rates charged by telecom companies has been of major concern among particularly business people across the region. The costs are highly prohibitive and unfriendly for business.
Telecom operators blame the roaming charges on taxes imposed by regulators.
In the case of Rwanda, Rura increased tax on calls to Rwanda from 9 US cents to 22 US cents per minute. To absorb this cost, telecoms decided to charge their clients for receiving calls while roaming. This has created an unpalatable scenario where the caller and receiver are both charged for the same call!
The East African Community (EAC) prides on forming a union that is people centered, so it is unconceivable how people in the region will integrate when they are not talking because of an artificial barrier called 'roaming charges.'
One area that has brought together people from the EAC partner states is business; yet it is businesses that have been hit the hardest by this communication hindrance. For the senior bureaucrats, this may seem insignificant more so because they don't feel the pinch in their wallets, the taxpayer foots the bill.
Imagine a scenario where a Rwandan business person in Uganda with a Rwandan line will not take a call from Kigali because he doesn't want to shoulder the cost of receiving a call or has run out of credit. Business will suffer and, ultimately, the economy will bleed.
The issue of exorbitant roaming charges seems be a complex one, there is a lot of finger pointing. Francois Gatarayiha, the Rura director general, while admitting that the rates to too high, he told local media that "our mandate only stops at retail interconnection tariffs and not roaming tariffs."
While this is true, telecoms will point to the increased interconnection tariffs as the reason behind the increase in roaming charges. This therefore calls for a regional engagement in finding a lasting solution.
The European Union is also grappling with the same issue but countries in the region seem to be making headway in addressing the challenge. A number of solutions are being mooted; for example, once proposed plans are approved by the 28 EU member countries, telecom companies would be 'banned from charging for incoming calls from July 2014 and all other roaming charges would be scrapped by 2016.'
Back home, that regional ministers in charge of ICT met this week in Kenya to discuss how these charges can be revised downwards is a step in the right direction.
We cannot talk of full integration when people are not talking.