In May, the country completed another link to the undersea cable through Mozambiqu. The fiber-optic connection provides access to higher bandwidth which will increase internet penetration and result in lower costs.
Also pushing down costs is a recent surge in competition in the broadband sector, according to the Post and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ). Analysts say, however, that although prices are expected to go down, the real game changer will be in network quality, speed and reach.
POTRAZ has licensed approximately 15 IAPs, and some are already beginning to put products into the Zimbabwean market. For consumers, increased competition locally is a welcome development, as it will result in more choice and price offerings.
In recent months, several companies in the country have joined the fray of broadband provision, including Africom, Telecel, PowerTel, Zimbabwe Online, and TelOne.
Econet, a subsidiary of Econet Wireless, Zimbabwe’s leading mobile network, has also been reducing its prices, forcing PowerTel to reduce its bandwidth charges.
The fiber-optic difference
Zimbabwe, like many African countries, has historically had to rely on satellite links for internet access. Satellites are not as reliable as fiber optic; they’re more expensive to run and cannot carry as much bandwidth as fiber optic.
POTRAZ’s deputy-director general was quoted in local media as saying that as more companies provide links to the undersea cable prices would go down.
“PowerTel was the first company to provide access to the undersea cable through Botswana and has recently established another link to the SEACOM through Mozambique,” reported The Standard newspaper.
“The arrival of the undersea cables results in access to more bandwidth at less pricing for Internet Access Providers (IAPs) which can have a spill-off benefit on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and consumers,” said Clinton Mutambo, founder of TechZim.co.zw, a blog covering technology in Zimbabwe. “These cables are dedicated towards serving the continent (unlike before) such that economies of scale are achieved where bandwidth is concerned. The more capacity African telecom providers buy, the cheaper it becomes.”
Obstacles on the road to faster connections
“In terms of pricing, connection to the undersea cable will definitely bring an improvement in connectivity but consumers should not expect anything dramatic because there are many other factors that will have to come into play, including, stability of power, lack of infrastructure among others,” said TechZim’s Mutambo.
The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Technology, Sam Kundishora, said that lack of feeders continues to be a problem in Zimbabwe in spite of the link to the undersea cable.
“The major challenge we are facing is that there are no feeders into the high-speed links in terms of last-mile connectivity, and this is consequently restricting the link to certain areas,” said Kundishora.
“Last mile connectivity” refers to the part of the communication provider’s network that is closest to the customer. The “last mile” is frequently stated in terms of the last mile problem, because the end link between customers and connectivity has proved to be difficult to solve.
According to Mutambo, while prices will come down, a number of issues affect how far they can drop, chiefly, power supply, country risk and individualism. Zimbabwe currently experiences intermittent electricity power supplies. Given that the telecommunications sector depends so much on electricity, this may force players to spend a huge chunk on backup power systems and other infrastructure which may undercut any projected price cuts.
In addition, Zimbabwe continues to be perceived as a risky investment venue. The unstable politics in the country continues to dissuade investors. To make matters worse, individualism on the part of local internet players is derailing rapid development in the sector. Instead of pooling resources together, many of the players are reinventing the wheel. According to reports, Zimbabwe’s telecommunications companies are being criticized for their reluctance to share infrastructure.
“Where a consortium can be formed of sharing base stations or a fiber optic grid, each player invests a fortune into having ‘their own’ infrastructure. Yet undersea cables are themselves the result of resource pooling, in the form of consortiums of telecoms players and investors,” said Mutambo.