THE mobile telecommunications market in Zimbabwe is turning into a battle ring for the gladiators where the weak might find it difficult to survive as industry players remove all the stops in order to increase their market share, the Financial Gazette's Companies & Markets can report.
Revenues among mobile network operators (MNOs) have come under serious pressure from an economic slowdown that has eroded subscribers' ability to take up new lines.
MNOs are also feeling the blows from a tough regulatory environment in which the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe is not making their work any easier.
In the face of slowing consumer demand, tariff reductions and the substitution of traditional mobile services with over-the-top products (OTTs) such as WhatsApp and Facebook, revenues are coming down across the industry.
The trend has been going on for the past three years.
This has compromised MNOs' ability to invest in the necessary network upgrade.
Competition is getting more and more intense with each passing week with consumers being the biggest winner.
The main battle is between Econet Wireless Zimbabwe-listed on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange (ZSE) -- and State-controlled outfits, Telecel Zimbabwe -- and NetOne.
The arrival of OTTs, that have taken the local market by storm, poses a real danger to these industry giants.
Gone are the days when mobile operators would depend on revenue from voice in the wake of the OTTs that are much, much cheaper.
OTTs now command a huge clientele, which is growing daily.
Faced with their growing popularity, the so-called 'Big Three" are savaging each other to retain their subscribers, in a market rated among the most expensive.
Economic analyst, Evonia Muzondo, said MNOs are trying to earn every cent they can lay their hands on to escape the threat of OTTs and keep their operations afloat.
She said: "Companies are trying to stimulate demand and counter the impact of OTT services as well as counter stiff competition. These promotions are good for the consumer".
In the first five months of the year, the three MNOs have launched a combined 15 new packages.
ICT expert, Shingi Muringi, said while Econet used to be the leading brand through various services, the other players have awoken from their deep slumber to give the ZSE-listed concern a good run for its money.
"The future of the telecoms sector signals exciting times ahead as we are likely to see more titanic tussles among operators, as they bid to satisfy the economically distressed subscriber," he said.
NetOne, the first mobile phone network to be granted an operating licence in 1996, had until now pursued a conservative strategy, banking on support from its sole shareholder, government.
But the mounting competition has seen the parastatal becoming aggressive, and taking the battle to its biggest competitor, Econet.
Since January, NetOne has launched six new products as it seeks to transform itself from being a mobile service provider to an all round telecoms outfit that offers voice, video, internet, mobility, iptv and other applications.
This month, NetOne launched One-Fi and ONE-Cliq, described by acting chief executive officer (CEO), Brian Mutandiro, as meant to meet "the ever changing needs of our customers and the insatiable quest for innovative technologies".
One-Fi is targeted at businesses, churches, homes, universities, schools, shopping malls, hotels and any other public places.
"We are excited that we have the capability to offer multimedia services... and the product we bring to the nation can connect up to 32 people at the same location using a NetOne SIM card," said Mutandiro at the launch of the latest products a fortnight ago.
Last year, NetOne also introduced an integrated prepaid package called OneFusion, which gives subscribers a comprehensive communications plan, with bundles for on-net and off-net minutes, data, SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter bundles and international minutes.
The parastatal recently launched News on One, to allow subscribers to listen to Radio news on their phones.
The State-owned mobile network operator has also introduced a voice call bundle, Khuluma 24 /7, allowing subscribers to make calls across networks at lower rates.
Khuluma 24 /7 (which means speak), is a voice call bundle that enables subscribers to call within and across networks with daily and weekly validity.
Econet, the country's largest mobile network operator, is also sharpening its pencils to maintain its pole position.
Last week, the ZSE-listed concern launched Econet Zone Mobile Wi-Fi on the go, which gives internet access to commuter omnibus passengers in selected metropolitan routes.
For every purchase of a data bundle, customers get extra 100 percent Free WiFi data that they can use when riding in commuter omnibuses.
Recently, Econet's mobile money unit, EcoCash unveiled the Chaka-Chaya promotion through which subscribers stand to win over 100 000 prices for using its multiple transacting touch-points.
Econet's mobile platform, Ecocash this month partnered with mortgage lender, the Central Africa Building Society, to enhance customer banking and merchant services.
This partnership will allow EcoCash users to enter their mobile numbers at a retailer point of sale pin pad.
Econet has also launched a car tracking and monitoring solution, allowing customers to track and monitor their vehicles on-the-go from their smart phones and laptops.
In March, it revamped its data offering to give customers more value through a new bundle offering. The Data Double Up Campaign gives customers 100 percent Free Wi-Fi on all data bundle purchases via #143#.
"We are keenly aware of the important role that access to internet has, not only to our lifestyles but to the development of today's society in line with our commitment to meeting Sustainable Development Goals. Through our services, we want to give our customers value, convenience, access and choice," said Econet CEO, Douglas Mboweni.
In March, Econet unveiled EcoCash home wallet app, which allows United Kingdom-based customers to have access to the Ecocash wallet as if they were in Zimbabwe and enjoy the ability to remit funds and pay for goods and services.
The previous month, Econet had beefed up its Smart Learning platform, Ruzivo, with more subjects including Ndebele and Shona as the company steps up initiatives to complement government's efforts in improving primary schools' pass rates.
Ruzivo is a revolutionary online interactive digital learning platform with locally developed academic content including interactive lessons, exercises and tests.
The packages, which pupils can access through smart phones, tablets or any internet connected devices, can be used both in the classroom for lessons and at home for revisions.
Telecel, the smallest of the three, led by Angeline Vere, is also burning the midnight oil to catch up with the other two, Econet and NetOne.
Its latest product offering is a product called MegaBoost.
Head of marketing, Christopher Rubatika, said as the name suggests, MegaBoost is an all-inclusive package that gives their pre-paid customers the much-needed boost in terms of making mobile services such as data, voice, text and social media access more affordable.
"MegaBoost is a response to increasing customer requests for affordable mobile services," he said.
This month, Telecel launched its WiFi Zone service, which allows subscribers to connect to the internet via WiFi hotspots using their mobile phones or any other WiFi compatible devices.
The previous month, Telecel had re-introduced their Mega Bonus promotion, which allows the company's pre-paid subscribers to make local calls across all networks for double the value of the airtime they purchase.
In March, Telecel announced a new data, voice and text package for its Telecel Go pre-paid subscribers.
It is clear that the telecoms firms are battling to catch up with developments elsewhere by going beyond traditional voice, currently accounting for 50 percent of the sector's combined revenue, to data services.
The products and packages being launched signal a revolution in the country's mobile telecommunication industry.
It is now a battle of relevance where the operators have to be innovative to attract more subscribers taking into consideration that Zimbabwe's mobile telecommunications industry is price sensitive due to the unstable economic environment.
TechUnzipped editor, Pardon Gatsi, said while the product and promotions were benefitting the consumers, the service providers should guard against value destructive competitive behaviour.
"Cost optimisation while at the same time delivering real value to customers is seen as a smarter strategy. Sustainable business models should therefore be premised on the bottom line. Data traffic growth alone with no supporting revenue growth is not sustainable," he said.
In a shrinking economy, characterised by suffocating regulatory environment, the focus should be on delivering value.
The numbers that matter ultimately are not just subscribers, but revenue, market share and average revenue per user.