PORTRAZ says Zim has cheapest data in region; viralbvideonsays most expensive in the world. Who’s the liar?

Last week we were all bombarded by notifications from our telecom service providers: mobile networks, fixed internet folks- everyone, about price “adjustments.” Like you, I hate those notices. In Zimbabwe, the adjustments are never downward so we don’t welcome them. At all!

As expected, all kinds of images, memes and videos went viral. Isn’t the internet beautiful? We can vent en masse! I found it interesting that all these viral items made so much noise that POTRAZ issued a press statement. They really went into it justifying why they gave the nod for tariffs to increase.

It seems POTRAZ was particularly not happy by a claim made in one of the viral pieces of content that data was more expensive in Zim than anywhere else in the region, the world including war torn places! Here’s the POTRAZ Director General:

Finally, we continue to come across posts purporting to draw evidence from a UK website, cable.co.uk, that Zimbabwe has the most expensive data tariff in the world at USD43.75 per Gigabyte (GB). We reiterate that this is not only false but misleading and malicious. As a matter of fact and contrary to that report, Zimbabwe has the lowest data tariff in the SADC region with an out of bundle tariff of ZWL14,930 which translates to USD3.21 per GB at the September 2023 official exchange rate while the SADC average is at USD4.60.

POTRAZ Director General, Dr G.K Machengete
So who is the liar? It’s not so simple.

POTRAZ’s argument

First, POTRAZ is very right in the analysis they did. From the table POTRAZ published, they say they didn’t increase the tariff enough. Let’s take the price per megabyte of mobile data for example: in April 2023 when tariffs were last reviewed, the equivalent USD price was 1.6c but right now after the current review, the price is equivalent to 0.53c. Meaning that the new price is still 67% cheaper than it was soon after the April review.

POTRAZ also published a comparison of prices in the region. They really went into it and used real MNO prices in these places and not just averages. Here’s the POTRAZ table:

Well nothing much to explain here. POTRAZ’s case is simply that Zim tariffs are below regional tariffs.

The other side

POTRAZ is particularly tiffed by the claim that data is costing USD43.75 per GB. This comes from a brief mention of data price comparisons done by Cable, a UK price comparison site. This brief mention was in a particularly viral Tiktok video:

Now, we will come back to the USD43.75 since this brief mention of Cable was not the only thing in the video. Let’s first talk about where the video started. It talks about the “million dollar heist” which is about a data bundle from Econet priced at above a million bucks, well if we can call our local dollar a buck. As the video makes clear, this bundle price translates to USD3.40 per GB. This is USD0.0034 per MB. According to the POTRAZ table already shared, this is below “the regional average” price of USD0.451. So far the video and POTRAZ seem to be inadvertently agreeing that Zim actually has the cheapest data in the region even after this “adjustment.”

Now, USD43.75
As mentioned, the thing that got POTRAZ into a knot is the mention of data in Zim costing USD43.75 per GB. Well, POTRAZ is angry for good reason here. Come on folks, if data was costing 44 bucks (real bucks), we would know! The tiktoker missed this one. I am quite sure that if he had paused a bit, he would have realised the price doesn’t make sense especially after his own math had put the million dollar heist bundle at USD3.40 per GB.

These UK guys always publish these comparisons and every time they are wrong. We once went into why their methodology is faulty and this is why we no longer bother to publish their outrageously headlined reports when they come out. Bottom line is their methodology lacks context and it results in such bloopers: unless you’all are buying some other data I don’t know about (and am happy that way), we are not paying 44 bucks for a GB of data! With the way you’all stream from pirate sites and those other ones it would mean we are millionaires in real dollars.

So, the video inadvertently agrees with POTRAZ (and Econet, Netone, Telecel and the rest of them) on the one part and quotes a ridiculous number from a UK website to make a claim that we pay more for internet access than war torn countries on the other part. Does this mean that the guy is a liar? Not exactly.

Oranges, donkeys, paper clips
This is where things get messy. So far we have been talking about the stuff POTRAZ gave us to compare. POTRAZ didn’t lie about those numbers but then again POTRAZ might not be necessarily right that Zimbabwe has the cheapest internet and whatever else in the region.

Do you remember how your Grade 3 teacher used to tell you not to add oranges and donkeys? POTRAZ was talking about out of bundle pricing and rightly comparing those oranges to the out of bundle oranges in the region. However, neither we in Zimbabwe and they in neighboring countries experience much of out of bundle internet (this is one of the things Cable gets wrong by the way).

Comparing bundles is not so easy though. There are a lot of combinations to bundles. Some of the variables are:

how long the bundle will last
is it for particular apps/websites (WhatsApp for example) and which ones and in what combinations
is it in combination with other none data services (like voice)
how much data
how much bandwidth (there is a certain WhatsApp bundle in Zim that doesn’t do WhatsApp calls- pisses me off)
This almost makes bundle comparisons a comparison of oranges and donkeys. The best person to compare is the individual who knows exactly how they use the internet and then they place themselves through scenarios of the different bundle offers locally and regionally and then they figure out which would have the best cost/benefit trade off for them. But still, umbrella comparisons can be done. POTRAZ didn’t do such, it would be too much work honestly and POTRAZ regulates the open tariffs and not bundles per se although they do check and satisfy themselves if the bundles don’t violate the open tariff.

I suspect bundles in the region are more promotional than here in Zim. See, in those stable economies the issue of tariffs is not as hot a topic which comes back every so often as in Zim. Here in Zim where the regulated price gets eroded by inflation from time to time, I suspect the operators don’t necessarily cook up promotional bundles to compete against each other but they mix them up in a way that allows them to make some meaningful return from their services. The motivations are very different. This is my conjecture though so take it with a grain of salt.

So, the problem is that the viral video carelessly included a faulty statistic from the UK to an otherwise good delivery even though it agreed with POTRAZ that data is cheaper in Zim than the region. The second problem is that POTRAZ compared out of bundle pricing which is not really how we experience the internet in Zim and the region. So whether we actually experience a cheaper internet access than our friends in the region is not really answered because no one compared our actual experiences.

Zim is even more complicated
The biggest problem I have with this discussion so far is that we are talking about the price of telecom services in Zimbabwe based on ZWL prices. Zimbabwe’s currency is not stable so all the numbers we have been throwing around will be substantially different by tomorrow. Added to that, we have been using the official exchange rate. Who says the official exchange rate is the most accurate?

In fact, the issue of the local currency is what distorts things. I see a bundle priced at a million and I gasp, but man, a million of what? The million dollar bundle turned out to be below the regional average. Still, seeing a million is not something I get used to. Even those days when we bought bread for billions of V1 Zim dollars, it was not something we could get used to.

Another problem brought on by currency has kind of been highlighted by POTRAZ in their rant against social media. ZWL tariffs are changing too infrequently. So infrequently that after a 100% increase, the new prices are still less than what they were in April by a good 67%! In fact what this means is that just before the recent change the price per megabyte was 0.26c which made it cheaper than it was in April by 84%. This cannot be sustainable.

But this is a problem you and I dear reader love. We get it all cheap and man we need it cheap man, our pockets are empty already. Issue is we get used to the cheap so much that we forget this is all a gift from the Zim economy and its distortions. When the “adjustments” come we don’t like it at all.

Perhaps it would be better if POTRAZ approved small increases during the course of the year instead of the sudden 100% increases. The reason we scream and shout is because we just see a massive jump to a million. We don’t notice how the price of a 500g packet of beans has been increasing over the year and that it actually changed much more than the bundle. Ever heard the story of how if you put a frog in boiling water it jumps out for its dear life but if you put it in cold water and raise the temperature ever so gradually, it will not notice and be cooked to death. Story is a lie (learnt this after years of sharing the story) but the lesson is true. We jump at 100% and we get cooked to death by the 500g pack of beans.

Infrequent increases also make the operators max out on the allowed maximum price because they don’t know when the next increase will come. If increases came frequently I guess some would choose to price below maximum knowing that the maximum price will always be moving in line with inflation and currency trends such that they can always be charging a viable tariff. As it stands all the operators price at the ceiling thinking it’s better to make some money while the ceiling tariff makes sense because who knows what it will be worth by the time POTRAZ approves another increase.

Issue is affordability, has always been
The real issue in Zim is not the price of data or voice or whatever. It’s not even the price of bread! The real issue is the affordability of all these things. This has little to do with the price itself or the providers of the service. It has most to do with the economy and how poor we have become over the years. We cannot afford bread not because bread is necessarily expensive but because we have no money. The video kind of acknowledges this when the guy compares the price of his selected bundle to what he called the average monthly salary in Zim. At that point I think we should have been more angry about what we are earning because no matter how low stuff is priced, if we are earning peanuts than we cannot afford. By the way, I don’t know where he got the average salary in Zimbabwe (as informalised as we are). The real number is probably much lower than his.

The minister of ICT weighed in on this and said she will be looking into this with POTRAZ. I am quite sure she will also see how the issue is not at the price level, it’s much deeper. Conversations like these help: they give us opportunity to look at things at a much deeper layer. The minister will probably have more to say at Cabinet about the state of the economy and such as she starts to be confronted by the real issues.

So, is there a liar? No. Do we like the “adjustments?” No, we don’t! Are the “adjustments” understandable? WE DPON’T CARE, WE HATE THEM!

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