Yesterday my esteemed colleagues wrote an article titled “Telecel is shutting down”- an article which they later retracted after much anger, howling and ridiculing in the comment section where they were accused of not doing their due diligence. They have since grovelled and apologised for this because they reckon they got fundamental facts wrong. I am here to say that while the gem upon which the story was based is wrong, Techzim didn’t get the fundamentals wrong. Telecel may be alive but it is comatose and frankly doing its subscribers a great disservice.

What Techzim got wrong and why it happened?

First of all, while I do have a strong relationship with my colleagues at Techzim I must be unequivocal in stating that I am writing my own opinion here. My opinion is my own and in no way tied to Techzim’s. I do remain a contributor there though but this opinion is not coloured by that. It is coloured by facts and my own understanding of the situation.

First, let us start with what Techzim got wrong. Their article and much of the information on it was based on an old Herald article. The article pertained to empowerment regulations which were frankly ridiculous and unfair to Telecel. The then Minister of ICT Supa Mandiwanzira threatened to go after Telecel and its licence and shut it down. That never did happen (probably just an empty thoughtless threat) but the government got what it wanted. Telecel is now basically a parastatal as it’s more or less now owned by the government they have had a 60% stake since 2016. So the facts of that article upon which the Techzim article relied were wrong.

Why would they have fallen for this? Well, the pressure to meet deadlines can even make the best journalists/writers miss critical facts. Techzim is a reputable organisation and they are usually not wrong. Why did it happen though? Well, Telecel has been going through what I can only call an extended rough patch. Not only have they struggled to keep up with the big two NetOne and Econet in terms of capital investments and subscriber growth and even retention. Most importantly the Telecel network appears down and has been in that state for days. A sizeable number of subscribers are not able to utilise services such as calls, SMS or even data. Telecel itself has acknowledged the issue although it’s not clear why they haven’t fixed the issue for so long.

Telecel is comatose

When false news of Telecel’s impending shutdown came out yesterday they came out with guns blazing vehemently denying these rumours. Importantly Telecel’s defence on the issue was about their licence was safe and valid and not in terms of operations. Their network operations are in shambles. Apparently, this is because of expired software on their Mobile Switching Controller(MSC). The result is that Telecel subscribers have not been able to connect to their network or make calls/data connections.

Telecel is very healthy at the moment, and our licence is still operational. There are no issues concerning debt.

Zitha Dube Telecel Spokesperson

The first half of that statement is patently false. Telecel is not very healthy. A healthy operator is one that would be allowing paying subscribers to make calls, send SMS. A healthy operator wouldn’t have expired software on its platform. A healthy operator wouldn’t be struggling to retain its subscribers. POTRAZ data shows last year Telecel lost a whopping 20% of its subscribers in one quarter. Again there is nothing healthy about that. If you currently have a Telecel line you are most certainly in the minority. Come on, when was the last time you received a call from a Telecel number?

Telecel has been a niche operator for a while. They have their strengths including their Megaboost bundles which are very cost-effective but the advantage they afford doesn’t trump their horrible slow service in most hoods and practically non-existent coverage in most rural areas. How do I know? Because I do have a Telecel line for review and work purposes. I cannot just write about stuff that I read elsewhere instead I have to live through the experience. Calling Telecel’s position healthy right now is preposterous and frankly disrespectful to me as a subscriber.

For Godssake merge with NetOne

So the Zimbabwean government likes to exert control in every sector. Take for example the broadcasting field. Rather than issue Radio licences to other players the government simply dished those licences to itself and its various reincarnations. That’s right, all those radios stations are practically owned and operated by the Zimbabwean government under several guises.

It’s the same thing with the Mobile Network Operating field. Most licences are owned by the government in various disguises again. There is Telecel is owned by the government (ownership is more than 51% of ownership or some form of similar control). They have owned NetOne since its inception (don’t let that PVT LTD fool you). They own TelOne (this is not a mistake, TelOne has a mobile network licence) which operates an LTE service.

Ever heard of Powertel which has a CDMA network? That’s also owned by the government as part of the ZESA family. Coincidentally things are not going well for Powertel either which has had downtime which lasted for months. Even they have the shameless nerve to pretend that everything is dandy and fine and only came out publicly to acknowledge their own “challenges” recently.

This mess could be easily fixed by merging Powertel, Telecel and NetOne and turning them into a single operation. That would rescue the two flailing operators as well as bring some much-needed synergy and economies of scale. It would allow Powertel to quickly transition to LTE for example without wasting resources building its own base stations. Zimbabwean operators chase after catchphrases like 3G,4G and 5G without actually providing everything these services are supposed to provide. Take for example the fact that everyone is now spouting about the benefits of 5G but none of us has even enjoyed the 100Mbps+ speeds offered by 4G. Personally, I believe chasing after new technologies without fully utilising what we already have is wasteful and chasing after shadows.

Telecel is alive for now

Telecel is alive now-technically in legal terms. In reality, they are comatose and are not providing the services they are supposed to. For the record that cannot be described as a “healthy” position no matter what their public relations campaign wants us to believe. They may have a heartbeat for now but death is their door if they keep going at it like this.