A passionate debate over the privatisation of ZAMTEL courtesy of the Brain Drain team. Some good exchanges between Dr Richard Mbewe, James Mwape and our resident contributor Dr Kaela Mulenga [with many others chipping in].
Whilst the discussion was interesting, I found it missed a number of crucial issues, which would take a while to fully explain. The main one being that contributors did not sufficiently appreciate that its not one ZAMTEL but three! There's the issue of the domestic land infrastructure; CELL-Z; and, more importantly the international gateway. Readers are encouraged to listen in but also review much of existing narrative posted on the communications tag which debunks many of the points raised by the participants (and agrees with some). For this post, I simply want to set out briefly where I think we are and what government needs to answer.
The decision by the President to privatise ZAMTEL is welcome, but should also be met with cautious optimism, especially by many of us who have long been arguing not just for a ZAMTEL strategy but a communication strategy that would ensure improved connectivity for the average consumer.
The current Government proposals are too sketchy at present to reach definitive conclusions on their viability. We certainly need more details from Government, until then its worth bearing in mind the following questions that need to be addressed :
- Is the Government proposing to split ZAMTEL in two as was recommended by the Parliamentary Committee on Communication or it planning to sell the whole lot?
- How has Government concluded that “partial privatisation” is the answer, when previously we heard all options were on the table?
- Where is the evidence of their analysis for all Zambians to see and judge for themselves?
- What is to be done about Cell-Z? What about the international gateway? Will it be made independent? How will it be funded going forward?
- We are told the international gateway will be liberalised, what does that mean? Are the international gateway fees going to be reduced? Will ZAIN and MTN will be allowed to own separate gateways or will they become co-owners of a potentially new jointly owned gateway venture?
- How will the privatisation relate to the new Information and Communications Technologies Bill 2009 ? Is the bill predicated on a privatised ZAMTEL? Will preventing privatisation impact negatively on its implementation and that of ZICTA's new powers?
As previously noted the Zambian Economist has previously written to the Ministry of Finance and the Zambia Development Agency proposing a model that could move our industry towards efficient access for the international gateway, while ownership remains shared with Government hands. The other domestic part of ZAMTEL would then be sold along the lines of the ZANACO model of ownership between new investors, workers and ordinary Zambians. The Government wrote back dismissing the idea saying all that was needed was money. Why has their position now changed?
In short, if I was to summarise my position, I would say that we appreciate the positive signals from Government and the possibility of new emerging policy and operational framework for the communication industry, especially when considered within the framework of the Information and Communications Technologies Bill 2009. But Government should bear in mind that what Zambia needs is a communication strategy not a ZAMTEL strategy. We also need to have transparency with respect to the existing audit of ZAMTEL, as noted by former Minister of Finance Ng'andu Magande. No progress can be made until viable answers are provided to the issues raised.