An attempt by the government to rescue TelOne from collapse by forcing other mobile cellular operators to share their international traffic revenue could result in renewed legal battles in the industry.

The Ministry of Transport and Communications has gazetted a statutory instrument requiring mobile phone companies to route their international traffic through TelOne from the end of this month. The ministry has already summoned the telecoms regulator to implement the law with effect from 1 November 2006.

Although the statutory instrument was gazetted more than six months ago without prior consultation, all the mobile operators made representations to the regulator claiming it was legally flawed and was a violation of their licences. The licences allow them to operate international gateways for traffic to and from their own networks.

The regulator then agreed to suspend the statutory instrument until it was amended. But matters came to a head when TelOne recently failed to settle a US$700 000 bill for international access, and the ministry ordered the regulator to implement the statutory instrument before it was amended.

"This is in spite of the fact that a committee of the National Economic Development Priority Programme (NEDPP) meeting to look into the telecommucations sector had also concluded that the objectives of the SI were not the correct way to deal with the issue," said an industry source. "This could set the stage for fresh confrontation which could lead to renewed legal battles," he told Standardbusiness on Friday.

Another telecommunications expert said the real problem was deeper than simply the issue of international termination rates. At present, there are three mobile operators in Zimbabwe, with Econet the largest, with a capacity of more than 800,000 subscribers. The company intends to shortly release new lines.

Telecel has about 130,000 subscribers. TelOne and Netone currently have a combined subscriber base of about 600,000. This means that the private sector is currently providing the majority of the telecommunications services in the country.

Even in areas like public community payphones services, which one would have considered the domain of the State-owned sector, which are supposed to have less profit emphasis, Econet and Telecel provide more than 90% of all community payphones. A spokesman for Econet Wireless Zimbabwe was reluctant to discuss the issue but confirmed initiatives were underway to resolve the issue.

Zimbabwe Standard