Zambian Minister and International Gateway – When you’re in a hole, stop digging

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Despite Zambia’s sadly deceased President making helpful noises about liberalising the international gateway in Zambia, when it comes to the crunch the current Communications and Transport Minister Dora Siliya has bottled out and hidden behind some of the oldest and least plausible arguments for retaining a monopoly international gateway. The current monopoly gateway may itself be suffering from serial outages but the Minister seems to believe a single monopoly gateway makes her country more secure.

To be fair the Zambian Minister has offered the country’s mobile operators a chance to operate their own gateways but only if they are willing to pay US$19.5 million annually, increased in August 2008 from US$12 million. By comparison, an international gateway licence can be bought in the liberalised countries of Kenya and Uganda for US$214,000 and US$50,000 respectively, according to a report in Network World.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that these prices are simply designed to prevent or heavily discourage any of the mobile operators from actually taking up such a licence (as the Minister herself confirmed to Parliament) whilst allowing the Government to say that it remains fully committed to privatisation. However, since Zamtel has not yet been privatised (and there are no plans to do so) it is clear that full liberalisation could not be further from the Government’s rather unclear mind.

As a result of the Government’s position, Zain has said that it will not extend its One Network roaming scheme to the country, thus depriving Zambian migrant workers, traders and business people from having access to cheaper calling from neighbouring countries.

In response to a parliamentary question, Minister Silya said that the Government has deliberately restricted mobile phone service providers from obtaining licences for the international gateway for security reasons. She explained that because of security reasons, there was no need to consult the various stakeholders on the framework of running the international gateway. How convenient for the Zambian Government in these difficult times when voices of disagreement might be raised.

At any attempt to liberalise international gateways over the last eight years, the security canard has been raised as an obstacle, most recently in Zimbabwe. It was even raised in Kenya as an argument to resist an Internet Exchange Point and in that instance, the security services refused to play ball and said clearly to the Government that such arguments were irrelevant.

But Minister Siliya is in a hole and wants to keep digging. Having only one gateway means that by the grace of incumbent Zamtel’s inability to run it, the country has been cut off from the world. But no, as the Minister pointed out in Parliament, it was not cut off from the world, only France and South Africa. Only 2 out of the country’s 15 international routes as the Minister. Oh, well that’s all right then for being cut off from a few countries and occasional power cuts must be accepted as a reasonable part of daily life.

On the South African route, Ms Siliya said that the fault occurred on August 8, from 9:00 hours to 19:00 hours on the Digital Compression Multiplexing Equipment which she said was replaced and the link was immediately normalised on the same day.

"The instability on the France route started on 12 August to date," Ms Siliya said. Currently, Ms Siliya said that Zamtel's current international switch was capable of handling the demand from all operators. Cynics might observe that it has the capacity but lacks the management competence to run it. And it is still not clear how potential South African or French investors in Zambia might feel about having an occasional phone service connecting them to the country.

But politicians change and one can only hope that better will come and that those who produce the wealth in the country get a better deal from the Government on telecommunications in general and the international gateway in particular. For Zambia’s citizens deserve better.