Monday, October 20, 2008

VoIP now legal in Zimbabwe?

Private Property
By Robert Ndlovu
HAS the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) finally seen the light?

If developments at Econet Wireless are anything to go by, VoIP is now legal in Zimbabwe. Or is it?

VoIP – Voice Over Internet Protocol -- is the sending of voice calls over Internet Protocol as opposed to GSM or traditional switched network like PSTN that are relatively expensive.

Zimbabwe allows only local VoIP traffic. Which means a person in Bulawayo can call someone in Harare over the internet. But up to now it was illegal for anyone in Zimbabwe to make or receive international calls over the internet.

The Chronicle newspaper reported recently that Econet was granted a “go ahead” by POTRAZ to operate an international calling card platform in Zimbabwe. This so called ICC runs on VoIP using session initiation platform (SIP) as the signaling protocol.
“… the mobile telecommunications provider was last week granted authority to sell the cards in foreign currency under its new International Calling Card (ICC) platform.

POTRAZ finally gave the nod more than a year after Econet submitted an application to implement the system.”
[ – September 19, 2008]

“The ICC system is one of our innovative products, developed in partnership with a United Kingdom-based provider where subscribers can purchase recharge cards in foreign currency and use the system to make international calls,” Econet CEO Douglas Mboweni told the paper.

For what we know, Econet is a GSM wireless, 3G operator and an internet service provider via Ecoweb in Zimbabwe based on the licenses it was granted by POTRAZ.
The three IAPs — Telecontract, TelOne and Ecoweb — hold the IAP Class B licence, which is an internet licence that allows them to only transmit data using the internet and not voice. Has Econet now been granted IAP license class A which allows for VoIP ?

The recent announcement by Econet on their new calling card platform implies that VoIP has been legalised in Zimbabwe. That would be great news indeed.
But is that the case? Is that official? Or it’s only for Econet?
VoIP Lawsuit - Econet vs Easi-E-Connect – July 2007

Sometime last year Econet took Easi-E-Connect directors Herbert Rinashe and Irfaan Valera based in Harare to court saying that they had defrauded Econet up to US$77,000. Econet claimed that this company was defrauding them by terminating VoIP traffic using the internet and Econet SIM cards.

Apparently this company beat Econet in implementing International Calling Card platform and the poor fellows were arrested for being innovative. Easi-E connect did not defraud Econet but were innovative enough to reduce the cost of calling from outside Zimbabwe using intuitive and smart VoIP /GSM technologies.
[Source – July 7, 2007]

Let me explain what this company was accused and charged of.
Easi-E-Connect used the internet to receive telephone calls from around the world onto a GSM modem located in Harare. This GSM modem contained multiple SIM cards from Econet.

This is how it works. An overseas caller dials a certain access number in the UK, for instance, that will prompt the user to enter a PIN. After a correct PIN has been entered, the system will then prompt the caller to enter a destination number e.g. 0912 444 666, then the call will be routed over IP (internet) directly to a GSM modem connected to the internet in Harare.

Bear in mind this GSM modem in Harare has several SIM cards, legally sourced by the company from Econet. Then after receiving that call over IP the SIM then calls the desired number and the call is connected and people start talking.
This means the call from the SIM card in the GSM modem to any number in Zimbabwe is literally a local call. The time used by these SIM cards was prepaid or post paid for.

“This caused prejudice of US$77 000 to Econet in unlawful converted international incoming calls terminated minutes for the month of June 2007 alone... and nothing yet has been recovered," a Harare Magistrates’ Court heard.

Leg 1: Caller in UK calling a local access number, entering PIN, and then entering destination number (the caller has paid local telephone service that he/she pays for monthly).
Leg 2: Call travels over the internet from UK and hits GSM modem in Zimbabwe (The calling service provider is connected to the Internet via an ISP and pays for the bandwidth it uses).
Leg 3: SIM card in GSM modem then calls the destination number. (The GSM modem owner in Harare pays for his internet service with his/her ISP and also pays for his/her airtime to the SIM card provider).
Intdev Online SMS services
Which of the call legs illustrated above is illegal?
Let’s say Zimbabwe imports diesel from Saudi Arabia via the National Oil Company of Zimbabwe. In order to reduce the cost of diesel to the end user, NOCZIM will add ethanol to the fuel. This is called blending. Jatropha or ethanol is used for this. This helps cut the cost of the fuel by 20 % and is indeed a great innovative use of technology to reduce fuel costs and also use bio-friendly green fuels.
Now, how would you react if BP or Shell in Saudi Arabia takes you to court for diluting their fuel with jatropha or ethanol to produce blend?

I don’t see anything illegal when a company such as Easi-Connect routes voice calls over an IP network in order to cut down origination and termination costs.
Hopefully Econet now understands this. By embracing a technology that they took someone to court for, Econet and POTRAZ have sent a good signal to all VoIP practitioners to leverage on the VoIP platform.

This is good news for Zimbabwe as it encourages technology companies based in and outside Zimbabwe to aggressively deploy VoIP based services which include but are not limited to calling card services, call centers, virtual telephone numbers, internet fax and call conferencing.

We live in an extremely dynamic and competitive global village where regulations and fear of competition have been noted as clear obstacles to ICT development and progress in Africa.

POTRAZ must come clear about VoIP because if they don’t, people will still use it. If POTRAZ tries to force ISP to block VoIP traffic on their networks, people can always install VSAT dishes. Restrictions are no longer an alternative.

Blind restrictions on part of POTRAZ are seriously stifling progress and employment creation opportunities in this fast moving telecoms lane. In Africa, countries like South Africa and Kenya are now new targets for US-based companies to provide customer services over the phone by using VoIP.

Availability of a call centers is going to play a pivotal role for the tourism industry come the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. To be able to handle millions of calls before and during the soccer show case, VoIP enables operators to access cheap and reliable calling plans to contact their potential customers in Europe, Americas and the like.

Zimbabwe is an ideal destination for customer support service centers over the phone as the country has a high literacy rate and people in Zimbabwe have a very high command of the English language. Call center software is available in free open source versions and can be downloaded for free from thousands of websites like

Advances in ICT in Zimbabwe cannot remain a domain of a special few because of protective and restrictive conditions imposed by a body which has little understanding that restricting VoIP will not work. VoIP runs on open protocols like (IP/UDP/SIP/RTP) and trying to restrict their use will be tantamount to trying to ban technological progress and development in Zimbabwe.

This discussion would be incomplete if no mention is made to the prohibitive licenses that POTRAZ is demanding for data licenses and ISP licenses.
POTRAZ is demanding millions of USD $ for one to secure a data licence. Surely this is a clear message to prospective telecommunications providers to look elsewhere. And indeed people are looking elsewhere by erecting satellites for use for both voice and data. The size of some VSAT is about the same size as the TV satellites that have been deployed all over Zimbabwe to access outside TV broadcasts like SABC and BBC.

If POTRAZ continues to make entry into data and voice business prohibitive, the mushrooming of data and voice satellites, which cost about US$2000, will continue unabated. All one needs is a satellite dish installed on site pointing the right direction into the sky and then activating the data and voice with the service provider.

Flow of information is fundamental to any country but in Africa, it appears authorities put all measures they can muster to stifle technological innovation.
Zimbabwe is set to witness some very interesting scenarios when returning residents from the Diaspora, used to high speed access abroad, will be faced with communication challenges on their return. It must be remembered that some of these returning residents have been away from Zimbabwe for more than 10 years and in that period, they have moved in sync with global telecommunications trends.

Population 12 .2 million (est.)
Fixed telephone lines 343,200
Fixed line density 2.81 %
Mobile lines 1,001,000
Mobile line density 8.2 %
Internet users 1,200,750
Internet penetration 9.84 %

It is clear from the statistics above that fixed line development has not progressed as fast as mobile wireless and internet growth. So there is NO rocket science needed to figure out that any work to increase tele-density in Zimbabwe will revolve around wireless and internet based technologies.

Progress is already being made in that direction with Econet being granted a 3G license. TelOne has also made moves to increase phone line delivery by use of CDMA wireless solutions as the last mile to connect end users to the TelOne telephone network. For now, this service is restricted to Harare and Chitungwiza only.

Is VoIP now legal in Zimbabwe? By giving a go ahead to the SIP-based International Calling Center to Econet; POTRAZ has sent strong messages to businesses – that yes its OK to implement VoIP in Zimbabwe.

POTRAZ needs to explain the criteria used to allow Econet to use VoIP because I don’t see any reason why ZOL, Mweb, Telconet, Africaonline and other ISPs cannot do VoIP. I used to think that Telco was the one awarded the IAD license A?
The deregulation of VoIP is long overdue and inevitable. The sooner this is done, the better. Otherwise the high costs of making calls will force business and organisations alike to adopt other alternatives that authorities might deem illegal. Of course this is already happening. Don’t ask me who and where!
We talk about indigenising our economy .We cannot promote this process of indigenisation on one hand and prosecute those who come up with creative solutions on the other.

People do not stop planning because the country is facing unprecedented economic challenges highlighted by six figure inflation and near zero productivity levels. The onus is upon us come up with solutions that relate to our unique position. Only we can help ourselves.

This article was written by Robert Ndlovu and adapted from Robert Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean IT & Telecoms Consultant based in New York, United States. Contact him: