Falling usage, rising costs: What the latest telecoms report is telling us about the Zimbabwe economy

Zimbabwe telecoms
Zimbabweans using less money on their mobiles as inflation rises

Costs are rising, investment is falling and customers are using less money on their cellphones, according to the latest quarterly report on Zimbabwe’s telecoms just released by the industry regulator.

The latest report, for the first quarter of 2019, shows the impact of disposable incomes on mobile phone usage, the effects of inflation on costs across the industry and how forex shortages are limiting investment in capital expenditure.

Active mobile subscriptions were down 6% in the first quarter of 2019 from the last quarter of 2018, while the mobile penetration rate – a measure of the total number of active lines relative to the population – fell 9.8 percentage points to 83.3%, according to a report by the Posts and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ).

Active mobile subscriptions down 6% (POTRAZ)

“The decline in active mobile subscriptions is reflective of the general depressed demand in the economy. A number of promotions were also modified in the quarter under review; the reduction in benefits could also have led to a decline in multi-SIM usage thus negatively affecting the total active subscriber base,” POTRAZ says.

The volume of mobile voice traffic fell by a further 4% from 1.467 billion to 1.404 billion minutes. This saw mobile telephone revenue falling 13% from $287 million to $249.9 million over the first quarter. The impact was so marked because voice traffic still accounts for 59.3% of total mobile operator revenues.

Customers visiting Zimbabwe are also using roaming less. Over the quarter, outbound roaming traffic recorded the biggest decline of the voice traffic categories, down 27%. This shows the impact of the roaming tariffs by mobile companies as they reacted to currency reforms in February that ended the 1:1 exchange rate.

There was a 19.2% rise in mobile internet data usage from 8,559TB to 10,202TB, but the impact did not run through to the bottom line due to rising costs.

Over the quarter, mobile networks’ operating costs increased by 6.4% to $185.9 million from $174.8 million, reflecting the increasing cost of business as inflation soared. Costs are likely to rise going forward due to the power crisis, which has forced many operators to use diesel to power up some base stations.

There are also less active internet subscriptions; they declined by 3.3% to reach 8.4 million from 8.7 million, which saw the internet penetration rate dropping by 5 percentage points to 57.9%.

Mobile internet subscriptions down 3.3% in Q1 (POTRAZ)

Says POTRAZ: “The decline in active data and internet subscriptions is reflective of the general depressed demand in the economy. Fibre subscriptions recorded marginal growth. This could be attributable to the review of fixed internet and data tariffs in the quarter under review.”

Mobile money numbers for the period are also showing the dynamics in transactions across the economy. There was growth in cash-in transactions as well as in airtime, bill and merchant payments in the quarter. However, there was a fall in the value of cash-outs, cross network transactions and in the total number of transactions.

More cashing in, less cashing out (POTRAZ)

Operators are also investing less, showing the effects of the forex crisis. Capital expenditure in the quarter declined by 22.1% to $23 million from $29.5 million in the final quarter of last year.

With less spending on capex – which includes software and equipment – quality of service across the industry is likely to keep falling.