AN independent board must be established to manage a special fund set up by the government in 2009 to drive the expansion of telecoms services to underserved and remote areas of Zimbabwe, experts said this week, warning that a regulator is not the perfect agency to preside over such a funding vehicle.
Telecoms and governance experts, who spoke to the Zimbabwe Independent, said the fund, known as Universal Services Fund (USF), would be more transparent if telecoms regulator, Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) surrenders the management of the fund to a special board.
However, they said USF, if managed by Treasury, or the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC), could be abused to finance things outside telecoms expansion services.
USF is a fund that collects 2% of sector revenues.
Combined telecoms revenues rose by 170,5% during the second quarter to ZW$435,6 billion, from ZW$161 billion during the first quarter.
This translates to about ZW$8,7 billion funding potentially remitted to Potraz during the period for developing the country’s telecoms sector.
The Independent reported last week that the OPC and Potraz were fighting for control of USF.
The experts this week said while government could maintain overall control of USF, it was important to enhance transparency in its management.
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Last week, Information Communication Technology (ICT) minister, Tatenda Mavetera said in an interview USF should remain under the management of Potraz, which she said has been expanding the network of base stations across the country.
Potraz has also been conducting training sessions on ICT, in addition to building community information centres in all provinces.
Jacob Mutisi, chief executive officer at Hansole Investments and chairperson of Zimbabwe Information and Communication Technology said: “There should be independent decision makers where that money is provided.
“USF should be provided to those areas where they don’t have connectivity. It will be good if we have an independent decision maker, who will say this is the direction or this is the area where this money should be directed to.
“Unfortunately, Potraz is a regulator. You cannot have a regulator making decisions about where the money is provided. The money must be provided for community development goals.
“So if a community realises that there is no connectivity, they can refer to that funding to be provided to those areas,” Mutisi added.
Mavetera said USF in other countries, like Tanzania, is managed by the telecommunications regulator.
“We are pushing the digital economy agenda to be attained by 2030 and as such we would not be able to fulfil that without these funds,” she said.
Tsitsi Mtasa, a corporate governance expert, said the current status of USF where the regulator makes decisions over its deployment was unattainable.
“You can’t be a player and a regulator at the same time,” Mtasa said.
“There should be a separation, otherwise there is no transparency and accountability.
“It’s not fair to others who want to operate in the same space because it flouts the basic principle of governance, which is accountability because there is no accountability. We must be able to hold them accountable.”
Telecoms players have raised issues about the manner in which the USF have been utilised.
It is not only in Zimbabwe where exclusion to telecoms services has been reported.
Global statistics show that more than 500 million people still lack access to mobile telecommunications on the continent.
Policymakers across Africa, Zimbabwe included, introduced various ways of achieving better access to “basic” telecommunications.
Over 30 African countries have adopted USF as their preferred strategy for facilitating digital inclusion, which are established by policymakers to provide a financial subsidy to mobile network operators to facilitate expansion to commercially nonviable areas to bridge the digital divide.
Despite the initiative being regarded as the best solution, in Zimbabwe, people in marginalised areas still lack access to mobile networks.