Mobile phone users in Kenya and other African countries will soon enjoy cheaper cross-border call rates, if a push spearheaded by Kenya for regional telecom operators to cut roaming charges becomes successful.
ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru says mobile phone users would pay reduced tariffs for calling a different network in a neighbouring country as part of an initiative to boost integration and modernisation seeking to scrap roaming charges.
Roaming refers to a mobile phone being used outside the range of its native network and connecting to another available cell network at the new location.
As such if the plan is successful, those roaming will not be charged for receiving calls. Most Kenyans like their African peers prefer buying a local prepaid SIM card to stay connected when travelling abroad because it is much cheaper than opting for international roaming charges.
“We want a situation where data charges are the same through Africa continental free trade area creating a market of 1.4 billion people to compete globally,” Mr Mucheru said.
Kenya, the CS noted, is part of an African Union-backed continental push under Smart Africa to remove international roaming rates in voice and data communications.
Mr Mucheru, however, did not provide timelines for a possible continental agreement to the scrapping of roaming charges.
Smart Africa is an alliance of over 37 heads of state and government that aims to take advantage of the affordable access to broadband and the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in Africa to establish a knowledge economy.
The goal of the alliance is to develop a digital single market on the African continent by 2030.
The alliance is seeking to abolish mobile roaming charges across the 54-country continent within eight years and to require telecom operators to treat all Internet traffic equally.
The manifesto of the Smart Africa alliance was first endorsed by all 54 heads of government of the African Union in 2014.
The scrapping of roaming costs will be a boon for consumers who are faced with high calling charges within the continent.
Consumer lobbies and analysts yesterday said the abolishment of roaming charges would shield consumers against bill shocks when making a call within the continent.
“This would be good and welcome news. Connecting the continent into a one telecommunications hub,” said Consumer Federation of Kenya secretary-general Stephen Mutoro said.
“It will reduce the cost of making calls. It will enhance ease of doing business and offer ample time for consumers to secure enough information necessary for them to gain optimally from the goods and services they procure.”
The average cost of making calls from Kenya to other African countries increased by up to Sh5 per minute last year, making it more expensive to conduct cross-border business and keep in touch.
Official data shows the cost of calls to Burundi grew the highest to Sh71.67 per minute from Sh66.67 in 2020, followed by calls to Ethiopia and South Africa that increased by Sh3 to Sh36.67 and Sh33.33 per minute respectively.
The rise in mobile call tariffs added to the pain of Kenyans faced with an increase in the cost of basic commodities like food, electricity, and fuel.
“The average price of calls from a mobile phone for African countries increased with Burundi having the highest increment of Sh5 to stand at Sh71.67 in 2021,” the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics says in the Economic Survey 2022.
The average cost of calls to Tanzania, South Africa, and South Sudan is the highest in four years at Sh50, Sh33.33, and Sh10.67 per minute respectively.
Last year’s call rates marked the first rise for outgoing calls to Uganda and Ethiopia since 2017, highlighting the effect of increased excise tax on mobile calls and data to 15 percent from 10 percent.
The increase came when telecoms firms reviewed their call tariffs to mirror the rise in excise duty on airtime and data.
The latest push by Kenya to seek end to roaming charges comes at a time the country and other African countries are being urged to tap the new continent’s trade pact to increase intra-Africa trade beyond the current 13 percent and cut reliance on overseas imports.
The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which aims to bring together 1.3 billion people in a $3.4 trillion (Sh397.8 trillion) economic bloc, will boost trade among neighbouring countries while allowing the continent to develop its own value chains.
The AfCFTA, the largest trading bloc since the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), is expected to increase intra-trade beyond the current 13 percent and improve the prospects of the continent to attract huge investments.
President Uhuru Kenyatta has indicated the creation of the AfCFTA provides new export opportunities for Kenyan products.
The successful result of the clamour to end roaming means that there will be no costs for international calls between countries in Africa.
Africa will be joining other blocs like the European Union whose lawmakers in March this year backed lower price caps on wholesale roaming fees paid by telecoms operators to peers in another EU country, extending for a decade a policy that benefits consumers.
The European Commission scrapped retail roaming charges and introduced price caps on wholesale roaming charges in 2017, saying this would spare consumers from “bill shock” when they return from their holidays abroad.