By Edward kayiwa

KAMPALA,Telecommunication service operators across the East African region have issued a red light against data roaming on the recently launched One Area Network, citing infrastructure disparities among the countries.

According to the One Area Network, all operators across the region must use a harmonised rate for both voice and data, irrespective of the set-up of their industry, before 2017.

The One Area Network is an initiative of the East African Community (EAC) to reduce telecommunication costs, not only for voice calls but also for data and mobile money services. Launched in January, it has led to declining mobile communication rates across East Africa.

The mobile operators, however, say current infrastructure limitations between the different EAC member States make it very costly to implement data roaming under the arrangement across the region.

They blamed poor telecommunication infrastructure in some countries, where satellite is being used to offer broadband services, making it more costly compared with those countries using fibre optic cables.

“The way the technology is currently set for data roaming is very complex. If a customer, for example, moves from Uganda to Kenya and wants to connect to data, Kenya must send a request back to the home network to connect the customer to the Internet, making it very expensive. This is because of the infrastructure limitations between our different countries,” esplained the carrier services management consultant for Vodafone Uganda, Otaremwa Otuhumurize.

He said enabling data roaming would require very expensive software and hardware upgrades for most telecom operators, making it impossible to do data roaming for the moment.

“I think we might be in a better position to do data roaming after 2017, because new technology is coming up which can enable some networks to do affordable software and hardware upgrades to be able to route data from a visited network instead of sending it back home,“ he said.

Harmonisation of charges under the One Area Network is part of a wider strategy by the four national regulators in the region involved in the initiative, which also aims at seeing a common tariff adopted for mobile money transfers and SMS.

The East African leaders agreed in May during a meeting in Nairobi, to jointly explore mechanisms of lowering voice, messaging and data roaming charges, in order to support regional trade among the countries.

The director of competition and consumer affairs at the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), Jonas Bantulaki, said the operators’ views would be presented to their respective ICT ministries before being tabled to the next East Africa ICT forum in Kigali for discussion.

He added that a lot of negotiation must take place in order to arrive at some common ground acceptable to all stakeholders.

"Among the possible solutions is defining wholesale and retail price caps for roaming charges based on best prices, harmonizing SIM registration in the region to enable sharing of subscribers’ data, improving infrastructure to remove any bottlenecks and enhancing e-commerce in the region," he said.

He also noted that the focus should be on developing a fair usage policy for roaming rates, traffic refilling, mainly for the cross-border traffic, and absence of a framework for data roaming under the One Area Network.



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