By Taurai Mangudhla
With the birth of the country's first mobile telecommunications company in 1997 and the eventual licencing of Strive Masiyiwa's Econet Wireless Zimbabwe, competition for the voice market seemed inevitable.
The entrance of yet another player in the form of Telecel Zimbabwe into the fray did not help either.
Entering the market with both cheaper mobile handsets and sim card offerings, the war to get more people talking on the three networks had just gotten tighter.
But as the years passed by, the leading telecommunications company was to emerge buoyed by its ability to expand network coverage and improve the quality of connectivity as services were limited to ordinary voice calls and sms.
And something happened many had not seen coming: mobile data.
Mobile data come into play and slowly became the new turf for mobile wars, first with subscribers flocking to a network providing reliable data connectivity. The service providers fought to be the first to offer certain aspects in data services and maximise on a wave of enthusiasm among their consumers who were excited to be connected to the World Wide Web on their mobile handsets.
Now that all the three mobile networks -- Econet Wireless Zimbabwe (Econet), NetOne and Telecel -- have made significant investments into network expansion and upgrade running into billions combined, subscribers are no longer searching for the availability of the service but affordability and innovation.
Over-the-top services such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter bundles have recently become the battlefield for telecoms companies, jostling to provide the cheapest data bundles. Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) reported mobile internet made up 95,6% of total internet driven by OTT services, signaling a cash-strapped and increasingly informalised economy.
On introduction of the OTT bundles, players offered unlimited access to WhatsApp by weekly WhatsApp data bundles for US$1, getting millions of Zimbabweans hooked on social media.
The promotions were to later change with limits on data bundles introduced. This saw the consumers start chasing for more affordable data and at the same time pushed service providers to devise cheaper methods of providing connectivity as data becomes the new war turf for mobile network providers, with consumers enjoying the reduced costs.
Last week, state-owned mobile network operator NetOne drew battle lines, unveiling two products aimed at reducing the costs of data and voice calls for its 5 million connected customers, as it seeks to grow market share.
The company unveiled its new One-Cliq and One-Fi Solution at its head office in Harare where acting CEO Brian Mutandiro confirmed an aggressive marketing approach aimed at doubling the number of connected customers to 10 million by year end, driven by a robust strategic overhaul.
"As a network, I can assure you that we are now in a position to take every Zimbabwean on board," said Mutandiro, boasting about the network's capacity. Mutandiro said the company plans to launch about 20 new products in the current year.
"In terms of our strategy, we are moving from a traditional network operator in line with latest trends that speak to convergence and we are now in a position to offer fixed mobile convergence.
We are no longer focussing on one aspect of the spectrum and we are saying as customers' needs evolve we move to meet them and we are also taking a proactive stance to anticipate customers' needs," Mutandiro added.
Mutandiro hinted data was fast becoming a significant component of the business with its contribution to the top line growing.
"In terms of revenue, data contribution continues to grow. We are having our annual general meeting so I don't want to pre-empt, but I can say data is a significant part of our revenues," Mutadiro said.
Explaining the new products, Mutandiro said the new One -Fi Solution is a low cost product packaged with a one time purchase of a home wi-fi device that costs US$130.
Following the purchase of the device, subscribers will be able to access the One -Fi data bundle packages ranging from US$9 to US$99. The lowest end of the bundle packages offers 6 GB and 25 voice minutes on net while the US$99 bundle offers 107GB and 600 voice minutes on net.
Mutandiro said One-Cliq is a product applying to closed user groups, both formal and informal. The product needs a minimum of 5 NetOne-registered customers to sign up for discount rates. Both are aimed at reducing the cost of voice and data on the network.
Econet on Monday launched mobile wifi on the go which gives internet access to subscribers on commuter omnibus.
Econet head of broadband Mathew Masiyazi said the product had been under development for about a year and is targeted to cover 250 routes across the country starting with Harare and adds to the company's 300 fixed wifi hotspots dotted across the country.
Econet chief commercial officer Navdeep Kapur said the company plans to install mobile wifi hotspots on 5 000 commuter omnibuses across the country by year end.
The product gives customers an equivalent of their GSM internet data bundles in wifi bundles on commuter omnibuses.
Telecel was to join the party on Wednesday, unveiling about 70 fixed wifi hotspots across the country at a cost of as little as US$1 per gigabyte of data.
"1 Gig of data purchased for connecting via a Telecel WiFi zone for example will cost US$1 which is comparatively much cheaper than connecting to the internet directly from the mobile phone. In addition to this obvious cost advantage, customers will be pleased to know that Telecel WiFi hotspots will allow them to connect with devices other than just their mobile phones," Telecel communication and branding director Obert Mandimika said.
As the data war escalates, the cost of services is being pushed down, much to the benefit of the consumer.