Tanzania has become the first country in the Africa region to threaten to impose prison sentences on mobile phone operators that continually fail to deliver quality services to customers.
Minister of Communication, Science and Technology Makame Mbarawa has told lawmakers that operators will be fined above $3,000 for poor quality of telecom services and that operators will be sent to prison for at least six months for network failures without proper explanation.
Poor service provision by mobile operators is generally considered to be a result of lack of investment in network upgrades and has become a source of concern in many African countries where consumers are losing money on uncompleted calls.
Over the past two years, mobile operators in the region have been engaged in a price war that has resulted in cheaper communication services. But the price reductions have resulted in network congestion and unreliable networks as customers can now afford to speak longer for less.
Mbarawa said, however, that poor quality of service discouraged investment in the country. Even bigger operators in the region, including MTN and Bharti Airtel, have been cited for poor services. Quality assurance tests (QAT) that have been carried out by regulators in several countries in the region have shown that all operators fail to meet service quality levels specified in service level agreements.
The move by Tanzania to impose higher penalties and send erring operators to prison is likely to have a ripple effect in the region where operators have failed to impress, some analysts say.
"Revoking the license of the operator at fault is better than sending it to prison. But since operators have refused to heed repeated calls for better services, I think the idea of prison sentence will have a lasting impression on operators," said Amos Kalunga, telecom analyst at Computer Society of Zambia.
In Zambia, Kalunga said, it is difficult to make calls on certain networks because of network congestion, and there is no mention on the part of operators of any effort to improve the networks. Zambian Minister of Works, Supply and Communications Christopher Yaluma last month accused the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA), the country's telecom sector regulator, of conniving with operators to maintain high mobile tariffs while providing poor services to customers.
ZICTA was not performing its regulatory role, Yaluma said, adding that he wants the agency to adopt "an aggressive approach in regulating mobile service providers in order to force them to improve their service delivery."
The Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC), meanwhile, has on several occasions penalized operators -- by, for example, banishing consumer promotions -- for continued provision of poor services. Calls dropped by operators in Nigeria are supposed to be 0.1 percent, but the figure was last measured at about 2.5 percent, suggesting the situation is worsening.
In Uganda, poor services have continued and the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) has threatened sanctions against providers in serious and repeated breach of the license.