Telecommunications Overview

Mobile telephony is well developed in Zimbabwe and the number of subscribers is growing fast.


However, call charges remain high by African standards and mobile phone usage is heavily weighted towards urban areas.


At least half of all Zimbabweans have a mobile phone. Most people who live in areas with mobile phone coverage own a handset and use it regularly.


SMS messaging is very popular.


Health agencies, including the WHO and UNICEF and the Ministry of Health, sent hygiene awareness messages to all mobile phone subscribers during the cholera outbreak in late 2008 and early 2009.


These urged people to wash their hands, to chlorinate their water supply, and to stop their children from playing in puddles.


According to the Post Office Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ), the mobile network covers 40% of the land area and around 90-95% of the population.


POTRAZ said there were 6.5 million registered mobile subscribers in Zimbabwe in early 2011, but forecast that this figure would double by the end of the year.


Figures issued by the mobile operators themselves indicate that Zimbabwe had well over 8.5 million mobile phone subscribers by September 2011.


Smart phones usage is growing slowly. Although data lines and prepaid data bundles are available, there is little 3G coverage outside urban centres.


The largest mobile phone company is Econet.


It claimed 5.5 million subscribers in June 2011, but reckoned that only 10% of these lived in rural areas.


The company embarked on a major expansion of its network after receiving a $45 million loan from a Chinese bank in 2010. It is now reckoned to have the best overall network coverage in Zimbabwe.


NetOne is the second largest mobile operator with over 1.5 million subscribers and plans to reach 2.5 million by the end of 2011.


Telecel, the number three player, said it reached the landmark of 1.0 million subscribers in April 2011.


Telecel launched a mobile money transfer service at the end of 2010.


NetOne followed soon after in January 2011.


Econet was expected to launch its own mobile money service in September 2011.


The state-owned telecoms company TelOne operates most fixed line services in Zimbabwe.


The company has a licence to operate mobile services, but has yet to set up a network.


According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), there were 379,000 fixed telephone lines in Zimbabwe in 2010 – equivalent to only three per 100 inhabitants.


Telecommunications providers are legally obliged to allow government security agencies access to their networks on demand.


Most Zimbabwean activists believe that their phone and internet communications are routinely monitored by state security.


Individuals who have reason to think they might be monitored by the security services– including  human rights activists, journalists, NGO workers and MDC activitists - have for years routinely avoided using certain key words in emails and phone conversations.


The only reliably discreet communications systems are illegal, unregistered VSAT and BGAN installations, of which there are estimated to be a couple of thousand in Zimbabwe.


Until recently, all international data and voice communications currently passed through the Mazowe Earth Station, Zimbabwe’s only satellite link to the outside world.


However, a fibre optic cable linking Zimbabwe to the EASSy submarine cable that runs down the coast of East Africa was completed in May 2011.


The government expects this to increase the speed and reduce the cost of internet access in Zimbabwe.


Throughout the hyper-inflationary period of 2004 to 2009 frequent power-outages, lack of diesel for back-up generators and a shortage of spare parts severely disrupted the mobile phone networks.


During this period mobile operators were also constrained by the government from charging commercially viable call rates.


Unpaid termination fees led many international networks to suspend their roaming agreements in Zimbabwe.


However, since economic stabilisation measures were initiated in 2009 the telecoms sector has benefited from significant investment in infrastructure and network capability.


As a result, mobile phone ownership has surged.


At the beginning of 2011 new government regulations demanded that all mobile subscribers register SIM cards to be registered against validated identity cards.


By some estimates this temporarily led to a 30% fall in the number of active lines.


However, this drop is likely to be reversed as consumers come to accept the new regulations.


During the hyperinflationary period there was a thriving black market in SIM cards, and many changed hands without any supporting documentation.


According to POTRAZ, (Post Office and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe) mobile tele-density increased from around 4% in early 2008 to 40% by the end of 2010.


POTRAZ forecast that mobile penetration would hit 100% by the end of 2011 – giving Zimbabwe one mobile phone line for every inhabitant in the country.


The Zimbabwe All Media Products and Services (ZAMPS) survey reported that ownership and usage amongst urban adults had increased to 86% by the end 2010.


Call charges are still very high by African standards. Most networks charge 19 to 25 US cents per minute for pre-paid voice calls and 10 US cents per SMS.


The vast majority of subscribers use pre-paid credit.


A new and innovative service for distributing information - Freedom Fone – was launched by the NGO Kubatana in 2009 (see Kubatana’s entry in the Media Resources section for full details).


Freedom Fone is free telephone software that allows any individual or organization to set up a recorded message information line using a computer and one or more mobile phone SIM cards.


Callers can call in to listen to a variety of recorded messages and leave a message of their own.


Internet access in urban areas is growing rapidly, with internet cafés, 3G data coverage and wireless hotspots.


However, the cost barrier to entry is still too high for many poor urban dwellers.


According to the International Telecoms Union (ITU) there were 1.4 million internet users in Zimbabwe in 2010.


However, data from Econet would indicate a much higher figure in 2011.


In June 2011, Econet claimed that 1.8 million of its mobile phone subscribers – roughly a third - were accessing the internet on broadband through the mobile network.


Econet rolled out a 3G service in Harare and Bulawayo in October 2010.


Telecel expected to launch its own 3G service in late 2011.


Besides offering fast internet access to smartphones with 3G capacity, Econet sells stick modems which allow laptop users to access the internet via its mobile network.


However the high cost of 3G data makes their use prohibitively expensive for most Zimbabweans.


A good source of information on telecoms in Zimbabwe is the website


Mobile phones used to gather and transmit health survey data

In early 2011, the Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre (HIFC), supported by the Danish NGO IMS, initiated a pilot project in Zimbabwe utilizing Nokia Data Gathering (NDG) software and the technology of mobile telephony to collect, send and analyse data in near real time.


NDG is a software system developed by Nokia that allows collection of data using mobile phones to replace traditional paper-based questionnaires.


The pilot project was created with the intention of opening communication lines between local media, humanitarian aid workers and policymakers.


Through a partnership with a local NGO working in community health, HIFC convened thirteen community health monitors for training with the Nokia phones and the data collection software.


The thirteen monitors conducted drug availability surveys in five districts of the country to health workers and patients alike and sent the results to over thirty health institutions with their Nokia phones.


Their work revealed that painkillers and drugs for common ailments were in short supply in many areas across the country and that these shortages could be attributed to expiration, non-replacement and pilferage.


A survey conducted amongst the 13 monitors who participated in the pilot revealed that the NDG solution is a relatively easy technology that can be used across a range of age groups and by any individual who has handled a mobile phone before.


The fact that data goes straight from the field into a pre-existing database means increased accuracy through elimination of transcription errors and the ability to make informed and prompt responses is enhanced.


Various partners working in the humanitarian sector have already started expressing interest and HIFC expects to roll out this service to more humanitarian non-governmental organizations this year.