The New Times (Kigali)

20 May 2014

East Africa: Scrapping of Phone Roaming Fees Excites Local Business People

Devothe Mukaruranga, is an importer of textiles based at the 'Quartier Commerciale' shopping area in the city.

The trader, who imports her merchandise from China, Uganda and Kenya, complains that the high roaming charges in the region 'eats' into her profits.

"It limits me when I want to communicate with the shop attendant whenever I travel," she said.

However, Mukaruranga might find it easier in the near future to communicate with her business partners if recommendations by the 5th Northern Corridor Integration Projects Summit in Nairobi, Kenya over two weeks ago to scrap roaming charges on voice data and messages to ease communication within the region are implemented.

The East African Community (EAC) partner states agreed to implement a one-area network by December 31, effectively scrapping off roaming fees.

For Mukaruranga, the move is long overdue.

Currently, mobile telecom firms charge customers for receiving calls while travelling outside the country. These rates could go down once roaming charges are abolished.

"We have to hold regular meetings with the tax body and the telecom firms in the region to come up with a minimum charge that is favourable for all," said Jean Baptiste Mutabazi, the head of communication and media regulation at the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency (Rura) in an interview with Business Times.

He said the taxes charged by the revenue authorities and interconnection fees levied by telecoms were responsible for the high roaming charges.

In 2012, Rura introduced a fee where any person calling a telecom subscriber in Rwanda is charged 22 US cents (Rwf144.3) per minute up from 9 US cents (Rwf59).

Similarly, other EAC member states regulators raised their roaming fees, leading to an increase in the cost of doing business in the region.

Mutabazi admitted that considering all member states' regulators and telecom companies have different reasons for setting up roaming fees, it could be difficult to come to one agreeable minimum fee.

Teddy Bhullar, Airtel Rwanda managing director, was optimistic the meetings would bear fruits.

"Airtel has a significant market share in terms of subscribers in the region, so we absorb all of the roaming charges under our 'One Airtel' arrangement, allowing the roaming caller to be charged the same calling rates as the residents of that country at that particular time," he said.

It is far much cheaper to call a person in China, the US or India than call someone within the region.

Theoneste Mugabo, a city foreign exchange dealer, said it is important to have seamless communication and at a lower cost.

"If a trader orders for goods, say from Uganda, it will be easier for them to get to track the goods' movement or be able to discuss the details of what they exactly want on phone compared to today when the receiver and caller are both charged," he said.

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