International roaming could, from January 2021, be free in the six countries that make up the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC). This would mean that people in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Republic of Congo, will be able to make and receive calls, send or receive Short Message Services (SMSs) and use mobile data out of the geographical location of their home mobile telephone networks without extra charges.

This is currently not the case.

The decision to make mobile roaming free within the CEMAC zone had, earlier this year, been agreed to by Telecommunications Ministers of the concerned countries and a date of January 2021 fixed. The date was however only tentative because the draft Community regulation document related thereto had not been adopted by the competent body.

The effective take-off of the project in 2021 now looks very likely as the Council of Ministers of the Central Africa Economic Union (UEAC) has adopted the draft regulations. This was during the body’s 35th ordinary session which was held by videoconference earlier this month. The session was chaired by Cameroon’s Economy Minister Alamine Ousmane Mey.

“Taking into consideration the recommendations of the Ministers in charge of Telecommunications within the sub-region, the Council has adopted the draft community regulation on the putting in place of free-roaming within countries of CEMAC. The Council is delighted about this decision which is aimed at strengthening the integration of people within the sub-region through reduced costs of communication using ICTs,” part of the communiqué that sanctioned the Council meeting, stated.

CEMAC zone free-roaming has been in the pipeline for years

Removing surcharges for call roaming within the CEMAC space is a project that has had nearly a decade of technical work and advocacy among CEMAC countries in conjunction with the International Telecommunications Union.

The Central Africa sub-regional office of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) is one of the bodies that has been encouraging and highlighting the socio-economic importance of such a move.

In July 2020, ECA re-echoed its optimism about the project saying “Member States of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC) have everything to gain in respecting the January 2021 deadline to finally put an end to surcharges on mobile roaming within the zone in order to boost the region’s economic recovery efforts in a post-COVID-19 dispensation.”

“This decisive step that the CEMAC zone has just taken, by opting for community roaming, constitutes a tool of borderless communication and a vector of regional integration. It is likely to significantly improve the daily life of citizens on the move in the CEMAC area and, consequently, provide an opportunity to strengthen the free movement of people, goods and capital,” Giuseppe Renzo D'Aronco, Economic Affairs Officer at ECA’s Sub-regional Office for Central Africa, is quoted to have said of the free-roaming project. He is said to be the ECA official following up on the CEMAC mobile roaming dossier.

Imminent free roaming is a welcomed relief for travelers

The imminent suppression of surcharges for roaming within CEMAC has been greeted as a move that will not only boost sub-regional integration but will equally significantly reduce expenses for travelers.

Roland Akong, a journalist working for Vision 4, a Pan-African television channel in Yaounde, said the imminent free roaming regime is a good move for people like them who frequent CEMAC member countries. “This is a significant step forward for these six nations. I have had bitter call roaming experiences where I have had to spend huge sums of money to make calls with my number,” Akong told iAfrikan.

“The cost is about thrice what you spend at home. I have had experience in Bangui (Central African Republic) and N’Djamena (Chad). On some occasions, I have bought a local SIM card in order to reduce my communication cost. I have also seen people changing their SIM cards after crossing borders. This is very inconveniencing,” he added.

“I was on a visit to N’Djamena (Chad) about three weeks ago. I spent so much to make calls. I spent about XAF 1, 000 (nearly $2) to make a call of fewer than two minutes. So, you see that the consumer price for international roaming in CEMAC countries is excessive. There is really need for the suppression of these charges,” another journalist working with Cameroon’s state broadcaster, CRTV, who preferred not to be named, recounted his own experience.

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