Zimbabwe's largest cellular phone operator, Econet Wireless, has hailed the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe's decision to change the rules on roaming and says it will resume full international service for all its customers with immediate effect. Econet, like all operators in Zimbabwe, had been forced to suspend international roaming services because of a critical shortage of foreign currency to settle bills incurred by its customers on foreign networks.

Zimbabwe has been grappling with the shortage of foreign currency for the past four years and has faced severe problems meeting payments to external creditors. The new RBZ rules, unveiled in the second-quarter monetary policy review presented by central bank governor Gideon Gono last week, require the operators to charge for roaming services in foreign exchange.

Econet Wireless chief executive officer Douglas Mboweni said when people travelled abroad and used their Zimbabwe cellphone, they would actually be using other networks. "All we do is arrange a temporary connection of a customer to that other network. They are charged for their calls while in that country in foreign exchange, then the network sends us the bill.

"We have no foreign currency to enable us to settle the bills incurred by our customers . . . that is why we had to stop the service," Mboweni said. "When people travel to another country they have to pay for hotel bills, transport, food and telephone bills in foreign currency. Although roaming is very convenient because people can be contacted on their normal number, it is still a cost being incurred in a foreign country," he added.

Mboweni said Econet customers who wished to use their cellphones overseas had to pay a deposit to the network before they were connected to roam. He said Econet was not prepared to allow customers to roam without paying a deposit because of the foreign currency exposure could destroy the company. "Foreign currency exposure created by roaming can destroy us as a company because we have to pay those other operators on demand," he said. Econet expects thousands of its customers to take up the roaming service now that it is back. The company has roaming connections to more than 130 networks worldwide.

The Financial Gazette