By Dr. Jenfan Muswere
The importance of ICTs during the COVID – 19 period cannot be overstated given that, due to lockdown restrictions, most people have had to work from home using e – platforms while scholars and pupils have had to engage in e-learning and health institutions have had to rely on e-health for service delivery.
In light of this, the Ministry of ICT, Postal, and Courier Services has been working tirelessly in facilitating and coordinating the ICT sector’s response to the COVID -19 pandemic. The Ministry has also been instrumental in giving direction to the sector regulator, POTRAZ, on what course of action to take in regulating the sector in the midst of the pandemic. As a result of such strategic direction from the Ministry, POTRAZ and ICT sector operators have been engaging in various COVID – 19 mitigation interventions.
Firstly, the Ministry of ICT, Postal and Courier Services coordinated the ICT Sector support towards the setting up of a clinical COVID 19 National Operations Centre at Parirenyatwa Hospital. The coordination efforts saw Liquid Telecom providing 100Mbps of bandwidth, while TelOne terminated ten (10) fixed toll free lines and handsets. Telecel availed twelve (12) toll free lines for use on fixed Cellular Terminals with Netone similarly availing twenty (20) toll free lines and handsets. Econet Wireless chipped in with four (4) Desktop computers while POTRAZ provided twenty (20) Laptops, seventeen (17) servers and two (2) Multifunction printers. The Authority also issued short code “2019” to be used as COVID-19 hotline for mobile networks and “0800 2019” for use on the fixed network.
Additionally, following recommendation by the Ministry of ICT, Postal and Courier Services, POTRAZ allocated free additional spectrum to all Mobile Network operators and some Internet Access Providers (IAPs). Under this initiative, the Authority assigned an additional channel of 2x5MHz each for congestion relief to NetOne, Econet and Telecel until December 2020. Liquid Telecom was assigned a free additional 15 MHz in the 2300 MHZ band for congestion relief on its LTE network for the same period. Dandemutande who are in the 2.3 GHz band, which is less congested, was allocated an additional 20 MHz free of charge until year end.
These allocations are expected to go a long way in providing congestion relief to operators, thus assisting them in meeting the growing demand for e-services due to the ongoing lockdown, which has seen many people working from their computers or mobile gadgets while scholars and pupils are engaging in e-lessons. Additionally, the additional spectrum will assist the operators in reducing their costs of service provision. This has enabled operators to intensify their fight against COVID -19 through donation of ICT equipment and bandwidth as well as roll out of reduced bundles and zero rated services for e-health and e-learning as highlighted below;
- e- health
NetOne launched a favourably priced e-health bundle and is now liaising with Ministry of Health and Child Care to access the databases of health professionals so that bundles can be allocated to them.
- Liquid Telecom
Liquid Telecom provided free trunk Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) connectivity and 50 Mega bits per second (Mbps) to the Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Service’s non-clinical COVID-19 Call Centre in Newlands with short code “2023”.
The operator also provided and facilitated free wifi and connectivity for the country’s three major airports, (RG Mugabe, Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo and Victoria Falls Airports), as well as at Beitbridge, Chirundu and Plumtree border posts for purposes of easy communication during screening of all incoming travellers for COVID-19 infection.
TelOne donated five (5) direct lines to the Ministry of Health and Childcare for use in COVID –19 coordination.
In line with the SMART Zimbabwe Education pillar, the Operators have done the following;
Econetdiscounted data bundles to allow students, teachers and lecturers to access data services for learning. More than 160 institutions are using these services. Econet is providing zero rated access to learning platforms such as the Akello learning platform for all Zimsec primary and secondary curriculum lessons. The operator is also providing free high-speed internet access to tertiary Institutions as well as access to Microsoft Learning platform.
NetOne has launched an e-learning bundle which is being offered to universities and activation of students is underway. Interested universities send NetOne the database of their students and lecturers with an indication of the bundle they want them allocated. NetOne then creates the bundle and loads the individual lines. The bundles are priced the same as the e-Health bundles above. Noteworthy is that NetOne is working together with TelOne to reach all universities with the latter providing fixed solutions whilst NetOne manages the mobile solutions.
Starting early June 2020, Telecel is launching an e – learning platform for all learning institutions called Funda. Funda offers data and talk time to the different members in a group with a minimum of 30 individuals at favourable rates. Access to the package can only be facilitated through the learning institution.
- Liquid Telecom
Liquid provided access to free high speed wifi to students on all Liquid Telecom Edu-Zones which have been deployed at 48 higher and tertiary education institutions across the country. The operator is also providing zero rated e-Learning resources for higher and tertiary education sites. The Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development has since been contacted for names of sites that need to be zero rated for immediate implementation.
Liquid Telecom is offering a virtual education facility in partnership with Microsoft. With this offer, staff members will pay a monthly fee while students have free access.
TelOne is providing network as well as Broadband Internet to all universities. This is being done in conjunction with the Zimbabwe Education and Research Network and the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development.
The operator has also made available, to all Government schools and tertiary institutions, a variety of value added services that include access to its state of the art Data Centre facility as well as converged communication solutions with voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) and video conferencing.
Furthermore, TelOne has developed connectivity solutions designed to assist schools in providing e-Learning facilities to their teaching staff and students.
Additionally, educational institutions have been provided with discounted TelOne Home Broadband packages to help facilitate access to online learning facilities for teaching staff and students. The same package, which is available at a discounted price can also be accessed by anyone working from home. This offer is available to ten people or more who purchase the bundle as a group. Finally, TelOne is zero rating online access for all academic websites.
In conclusion, it is worth noting that the strategic and policy direction that is being given by the Ministry of ICT, Postal and Courier Services in the fight against COVID – 19 has gone a long way in ensuring a well-coordinated approach in the sector’s response to the pandemic. Through the guidance given by the Ministry, the ICT sector’s efforts against COVID – 19 have been complimentary of each other rather than competitive as would have been the case had there been no proper coordination or strong leadership.