To many Malawians, making a call or sending a text message has become a luxury as very few of them can afford. No wonder, the ‘please call’ back service introduced by network operators is probably the most frequently dialled code.
Many other subscribers, especially those whose handsets are Internet-enabled, have found a cheaper and instant way to send texts via WhatsApp or other instant messengers. This is cheaper than the K21 charged for inter-network SMSs.
For voice calls, it has been argued that Malawi has one of the highest tariffs on the continent. Naturally, interested parties in the telecommunications sector have played this down.
Early last year, telecommunications operators justified their tariff increases, mentioning the free falling kwacha, rising inflation rate (that stood at 37 percent in February 2013), vandalism of equipment and the ever-increasing pump price of fuel as factors increasing their cost of doing business.
In every business venture, the investors’ major goal is to make profits and get their investment’s worth. Hence, from a business perspective, the operators’ reasons for raising the tariffs make sense. But, wearing the hat of a consumer, I feel the operators and their regulator, the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra), owe subscribers a matching quality service.
For example, I find it a bad business practice to demand K80 or more per minute from a subscriber for the substandard service such as high call drop rates (mafoni ongoduka before one is through despite having enough credit). It is worth pointing out that the operators’ poor service is not a mere perception or malicious accusation as, for example, Macra’s third quarter 2012 quality of service report (covering the period July to September), noted continued poor service of telephone.
I will share what I got from a colleague at the weekend. He shared online what he described as a “shocking extract about Malawi” from the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) Communications Environment Report published in October 2013.
In a nutshell, under pricing, the report, quoting the International Telecommunications Union (ICU), says the cost of a monthly mobile basket of services (voice calls, data costs and voice calls) for Malawi in 2008 was 57.4 percent of the monthly gross national income per capita, which was above the average for sub-Saharan Africa of 23 percent. This made/makes Malawi the third most expensive out of 32 African countries surveyed. It was the same for fixed phones and broadband Internet.
Some might argue that the data for the survey was collected a long time ago; hence, the situation might have improved. Not really. For example, last week, a friend currently on a tour of duty in South Africa confided in me that it cost him K1 300 for a two-minute call using his Malawian network operator’s line.
Ironically, calling Malawi from South Africa using that country’s network operators costs an average of three rands (about K135) per minute. Even if one brings in arguments of “roaming”, surely, K650 per minute is way on the higher side. And were we not told that nowadays you can “make international calls at local rates” when travelling to some countries?
Such disparities in terms of call tariffs are scary and make one question the business ethics of the players.
Currently, there are four network operators in the country, namely; (in alphabetical order), Access Communications Limited (ACL), Airtel Malawi Limited, Malawi Telecommunications Limited (MTL) and TNM. Two other players, Celcom and G-Mobile (which has been engaged in legal battles regarding its licence), are yet to join the fray.
But, looking at the pricing of services, one tends to suspect collusion among the players as the tariffs are almost the same for SMSs and voice calls within and into or outside each other’s network.
This scenario has always prompted me to question whether indeed more players will mean better tariffs or it will simply be more of the same for the consumers who will dig deeper into their pockets while the operators and their investors cart home fat bonus cheques.