When Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) announced that effective Thursday, April 22 2021, mobile network operators in the country would reduce the cost of access to the Internet (data bundles) by 30 percent, excitement was the expected reaction.
In contrast, though, Malawians—who have for long complained about high access to telecommunications services, notably voice calls and Internet access—gave a muted response after the operators published the new ruling rates.
Many of them, if the frustrations aired through social media platforms are anything to go by, felt the operators in partnership with Macra as the regulator could have done more.
In its statement heralding the price reduction, Macra said the Malawi Government appreciates the role ICT plays in the country’s socio-economic development and that Internet services have played a critical role in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic; hence, resolved to make data access affordable to as many Malawians as possible.
The operators, according to Macra, agreed to review the data rates, especially the low volume bundles commonly used by many Internet users. To this end, in August 2020 the operators reduced pay as you go data rates from an average of K20 to K15 per megabyte (MB) following intervention from the Ministry of Information.
This time around, Macra said, the operators agreed to effect a 30 percent reduction for the entry level one gigabyte (GB) data bundle while volume bundles of up to 4 GB have also been reduced in the range of between 10 and 31 percent.
In an ideal situation, a reduction of 30 percent or K30 on every K100 in the price of any product should be welcome news.
But Malawians are not amused. They expected better and feel the authorities have short-changed them.
For Airtel Malawi plc subscribers, the 30 percent translates to paying K1 500 for a 1GB daily bundle that previously cost K1 800 while the 1GB weekly bundle is now at K2 000 from K2 500 and the 1GB monthly bundle is fetching K2 400 from K3 500.
TNM plc, on its part, has phased out several social bundles. The operator says it will from May 1 introduce a 1.2GB WhatsApp bundle at K1 200 to replace the 2.5GB one.
That Malawians pay through the nose to access the Internet is a fact. In fact, a National Statistical Office survey few years ago established that while many Malawians have access to mobile phones and other telecommunication facilities, usage remained low because of the high cost of services charged by operators. The high cost explains the low penetration rate of Internet in Malawi in today’s ICT era where life and business revolve around the Internet.
If Malawians, especially the #DataMustFall campaigners, are to smile that data rates are bearable, I still feel the Malawi Government holds the key.
Here is the irony. The Malawi Government aspires to increase access to ICT infrastructure, especially the Internet yet it heavily taxes the same.
For the record, mobile network operators pay 10 percent excise tax and 16.5 percent value-added tax (VAT) for the Internet services they render to Malawians.
The taxation of the Internet is one major barrier to low or bearable data rates. If the government reduced the rate of the excise tax on Internet services, I do not see why the operators cannot reciprocate by passing on the benefits to the subscribers.
Without a review of taxes for Internet services, the #DataMustFall campaign will be here to stay.
My heart bleeds that Malawians are asked to pay more for the services that elsewhere cost fairer.
Time has come for the government to step in, play its part and improve access to the Internet through tax review. I know the revenues are dwindling, but then lower rates for Internet access have the potential to accelerate economic activity and, by extension, generate extra revenue.