The East African region communications sector regulators have resolved to reassess the implementation of the One Network Area (ONA) framework for roaming charges in order to address the emerging issues.
The One Network Area (ONA) framework on roaming charges is a regional initiative in East Africa that aims to reduce the cost of mobile roaming within the East African Community (EAC).
When you use your phone in a foreign country, you are roaming.
Roaming is the ability to use a mobile phone outside of the coverage area of your home network. When you roam, your phone connects to the network of a partner mobile network operator (MNO). This allows you to make and receive calls, send and receive text messages, and use data services while you are traveling.
Roaming is typically more expensive than using your phone at home. This is because MNOs have to pay each other to provide roaming services to their customers. The cost of roaming can vary depending on a number of factors, including the country you are visiting, your mobile carrier, and your service plan.
Roaming voice calls are typically the most expensive type of roaming usage. You can expect to pay per minute for outgoing and incoming calls.
Roaming text messages are typically less expensive than voice calls, but they can still add up.
Roaming data can be very expensive, especially if you use a lot of it.
One Network Area (ONA)
It was out of the above context that the EAC member countries in 2014 initiated the ONA framework which is based on a set of regulatory interventions, including: eliminating charges for receiving voice calls while roaming in EAC countries, a waiver of excise taxes and surcharges on incoming ONA voice traffic, retail price caps on outbound ONA voice calls, and requiring mobile network operators (MNOs) to re-negotiate with their roaming partners to reduce wholesale tariffs.
Among the aims of the One Network Area is to remove roaming charges for subscribers in the EAC member countries moving among these states. This is aimed at fostering growth in movement, communication and trade.
The regional communications sector regulators have met in Kigali, Rwanda to address the emerging issues which include; the implementation of the ONA framework, review of roaming charges within the region, SMS and Data frameworks as directed during the 14th Summit of Heads of State in 2018.
The Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance, Dr. Aminah Zawedde who doubles as the chair of the ICT Infrastructure Development Cluster under the Northern Corridor Integration Projects (NCIP) said the meeting has resolved to engage operators (telecom companies) on how to deal with emerging issues.
“We have agreed that we are going to go back to the operators and engage them in our countries, and then get to know what their experiences are about this [ONA] framework,” she said.
Dr. Zawedde, however, noted the operators’ feedback will not affect the framework objectives whose original position stands that the receiver of calls during the roaming process should not be charged.
“As we look at whatever challenges that could have cooked up for the last nine years, we still want to maintain that the receiver will not be charged for receiving roaming calls within the region, but how we ensure that this happens comfortably amongst the operators in the region that is the gist and focus of this discussion,” she explained.
All member countries including Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda are implementing the framework, with some reporting challenges, according to Dr. Zawedde.
“There are some countries that have submitted challenges that the operators have put forward to them in terms of implementation and we are saying, if one country is saying that they have challenges, maybe other countries are also experiencing challenges that we need to look into as a region, instead of tackling one challenge at a time because when you look at one country at a time, then we shall be probably solving silo challenges. We want to solve them holistically because all these operators are working in the same space, and therefore, should be given a leveled ground on how to operate competitively within the region,” she said.
The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) Executive Director, Eng. Irene Kaggwa said that unlike some countries that have experienced challenges, Uganda has fully implemented the framework.
“In terms of what has really been achieved, the roaming calling rates have almost 90% reduced; the traffic and trade in the region have also increased because, now people are more comfortable to roam. Once you have communication, life becomes easier,” she said.
Eng. Kaggwa, who possesses a vast experience in the ICT sector, regulation and implementation in various aspects including internet development and licensing added: “We have students studying across the countries, but even importantly, traders are able to move around the region. So you don’t have to worry that I have to go to the other country then I have to first get a new SIM card for that country, yet I’m only going to spend one or two days or week. You can now use your phone all across the region.”
Some of the benefits of the ONA framework include; reduced cost of mobile roaming for consumers and businesses, increased mobile roaming traffic, boosted trade and investment in the region, and promotion of regional integration and economic development.
Eng. Kaggwa comforted Ugandans not to worry about heavy roaming charges in EAC countries, saying that EAC citizens are protected by the ONA framework.
“If you go to a country and you realise that by switching on your phone you are going to be charged highly, you are likely to switch it off. But if you are part of ONA, that means that you are less worried about receiving and making calls and therefore an additional revenue that will come from the fact that you will accept to use communication in that period,” she said.
“Rather than have roaming charges restrict ease of communication as people move across the region, the ONA sought to reduce the barriers in that respect,” she added.
Eng. Kaggwa said the meeting also resolved to review the framework owing to difference in tax regimes and other challenges including grey traffic which degrade the quality of calls and erodes revenue revenues to regional economies.
ONA requires mobile network operators to renegotiate and reduce wholesale tariffs and a waiver of excise taxes and charges on incoming voice traffic while establishing wholesale and retail price caps on outbound ONA traffic.
Meanwhile, the National Coordinator of Northern Corridor Integration Projects (NCIPs), Amb. Richard Kabonero said that the harmonization of calling rates will support and facilitate the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
He said that ONA framework is just one of the many projects under the Northern Corridor Integration Projects that seeks to enhance competition, improved access to cost effective and secures ICT services.
Amb. Kabonero explained that NCIPs seek to speed up the integration of regional economies but also drastically cut the cost of doing businesses by positioning the region as a leading investment destination.
“We have made progress on the roaming charges plus the cost of communication, but we are not satisfied. We think there should be integration of payment systems in other areas,” he said.
Achieving ONA framework, Amb. Kabonero said, will facilitate trade within the EAC bloc through cheap calling rates.
ONA caps cross-border traffic calling rates at $0.5 per minute and eliminates mobile roaming charges.
Key among other projects under the NCIPs includes infrastructure, power generation and transmission and ICT.
“Next month we have a very important meeting on extending the Standard Gauge Railway from Naivasha to Malaba and Malaba to Kampala and all the way to the boarder of Rwanda,” said Amb. Kabonero.
He added that whereas all member states are not on the same level in the implementation of the framework, a lot has been achieved under the framework.
The European Union is facilitating the revival of Northern Corridor Integration Projects to help the region cut the cost of doing business.