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  • Zimbabwe's Elections 2013 - Index of Articles

  • Econet and bulk SMS in Zimbabwe: Operator blocking ‘legit’ bulk SMS
    Tendai Mupaso, Technology Zimbabwe

    December 03, 2013

    Over the past few days, we have received revelations suggesting that Zimbabwe’s largest MNO, Econet Wireless, is unfairly blocking bulk SMS messages that don’t go through a newly Econet-accredited bulk SMS aggregator, Gikko. Zimbabwean software company Chartered Systems Integration (CSI), told Techzim that their bulk SMS service which is used by most financial institutions and government organisations like ZIMRA was being blocked by Econet Wireless without just cause.

    Before these latest developments, the issues around bulk SMS being blocked came to light during the run up to the 2013 Harmonised Elections when the, an NGO, claimed POTRAZ had instructed the mobile operators to block all international bulk SMS. These claims were echoed widely. However, this new information shows that POTRAZ’s role in the matter was not nearly close to such a directive but could have been conveniently interpreted so by Econet.

    While POTRAZ did issue a regulatory notice to mobile operators, the notice merely asked that the mobile operators cease sending, and facilitating the sending, of spam to mobile subscribers. POTRAZ’s regulatory notice, which you can download here, was in response to repeated complaints by telecoms consumers about incessant SMS spam. So far it looks like Econet interpreted that to mean; accredit a mobile aggregator and block all direct bulk SMS connectivity.

    We’re guessing Econet had no idea that the spam people complained about was mostly the operator’s own “we have a new this and that” spam.

    The move by Econet affected companies like CSI who use international SMS gateways to provide bulk SMS services to their clients. In the information they shared with us, CSI accused Econet of unfairly blocking legitimate bulk SMS messages used by their clients to communicate with customers. CSI said their bulk SMS service complies with the POTRAZ regulatory notice and that they felt Econet is unjustly compelling them to use their accredited aggregator when this should be a commercial choice. The problem, CSI said, has prejudiced them of a significant amount of revenue since, at its peak, their bulk SMS service was pushing as many as 1 million SMS messages per month about 1 million SMS messages per day. {CSI clarified it was actually 1M a day)

    CSI provides financial services software solutions and is also the company behind the ZIMRA Online Payments (ZOP) which makes it possible for ZIMRA payments to be made at banks and the transactions to reflect in the ZIMRA system in real-time. When payment is made, an SMS receipt is sent to the depositor confirming the payment. According to CSI therefore, the impact of the SMS blocking is that the bulk of SMS receipts are not issued anymore.

    Econet’s anti-spam position, and the move to start restricting the successful transmission bulk SMS traffic, was communicated (apparently to bulk SMS users) in mid July (The POTRAZ regulatory notice had been issued in April). In a letter titled “Bulk SMS interworking with Econet”, the Econet’s Product Development Manager, Spencer Manguwa, said they were implementing measures to “restrict the termination of bulk SMS through direct interconnection” in order to protect Econet customers from receiving spam. Econet said in the letter that they had accredited Gikko to “aggregate and terminate bulk SMS on Econet Network”.

    While the letter doesn’t say the aggregation accreditation is exclusive to Gikko, it has no mention of other aggregators, or the option for companies to apply as aggregators. It effectively meant (or means) to transmit bulk on the Econet network you either go through Gikko, or you’ll be blocked. But then we still get SMSs from international companies like Google and Facebook (2 factor authentication verification SMSs) so there’s the question of how those SMSs are routed.

    Gikko told us they are an associate partner of Infobip and that it is through Infobip that they are an accredited bulk SMS aggregator for Econet. Infobip is a GSMA Associate member and so far we are assuming (yes, assuming) that Econet recognises it as legit bulk SMS. If we assume this, the confusing part becomes that CSI claims their bulk SMS providers – one of which is RouteSMS - are also GSMA certified.

    We contacted Econet to get a full picture on this, and though they promised to come back to us once they had enough information, they hadn’t by the time we hit the publish button.

    The legality of Econet having one aggregator and “literally forcing Gikko upon Bulk SMS users” has been questioned by CSI who say that this means Gikko can charge prices that are way above market rates as they have no competition.

    CSI pointed to the example of one client of theirs, a bank, that they says was approached by Gikko and encouraged to purchase SMSs “at the exorbitant price of USD 0.09 per SMS”, which was significantly higher than CSI’s USD 0.024 per SMS.

    It is alleged by CSI in early July (before Econet blocked the SMSs), Gikko MD Winston Taylor, approached one of their commercial bank (client to CSI) and told them of Econet’s impending move to block bulk SMS messages not going through an accredited aggregator - Gikko. According to CSI, Taylor also told their client that Gikko had analysed SMS traffic that was being routed by Econet’s SMS gateway and that the bulk of the client’s outgoing SMS traffic was spam.

    We contacted Gikko MD, Winston Taylor, and he confirmed making the bank visit at some point, but he denied having claimed to be an Econet consultant as well as having said their company had analysed the bank’s SMS traffic. “It is untrue,” his response said. As for having offered bulk SMS to the bank at 9 cents a piece, Taylor said he would not comment on it as their commercial business discussions are confidential. He however, sent through their 2014 1st quarter tariffs, which show a maximum of US 2.3 cents.

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