Internet Shuts Down Due to Unpaid Bill

An aerial view of Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe. (Photo: Webshots)

Government failure to pay a $700,000 bill to a satellite company has brought Zimbabwe's internet services to a virtual standstill, further isolating a country grappling with food shortages, chronic unemployment, and the world's highest inflation rate.

Internet users in Zimbabwe have complained of long delays in sending and receiving emails, painfully slow browsing speeds and problems connecting to many websites since Intelsat severed a satellite link that provided about three-quarters of the bandwidth used by the state-owned communications firm, TelOne.

The country's biggest internet service provider, MWeb Zimbabwe, issued a statement apologising to subscribers for the delays, but said it did not know when TelOne would settle its debt to Intelsat, one of the world's biggest communications companies, to have the satellite link restored.

"This is catastrophic, as all legal internet service providers (ISPs) utilise TelOne for their outgoing bandwidth to the worldwide web as well as for email traffic. Thus, all such ISPs have [been], and are being, affected by this downtime. In short, this ... is causing an almost collapse of the internet in Zimbabwe," the MWeb statement said.

A spokesperson for the Zimbabwe Internet Service Providers Association (ZISPA), an independent body representing all ISPs in the country, said they were working with the government and TelOne to resume normal internet services.

"We have been trying to find out for three weeks what the problem is, and TelOne finally told us it was a problem of payment," the ZISPA spokesperson said. "Now we are trying to find out what the plan is to get the problem resolved, but so far there has been very little movement in that direction."

TelOne declined to answer questions posed via telephone and email.

The breakdown in internet services coincides with fierce debate over Zimbabwe's proposed Interception of Communications Bill 2006, which would allow the government to monitor all internet communications, including email, web browsing, instant messaging and financial transactions.

President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party government has either instituted or revived a raft of media legislation that has led to the closure of numerous newspapers, trials of journalists and the expulsion of foreign correspondents. The new legislation being discussed in parliament would allow interception of all forms of private communications, including fixed-line and cellular phone calls.

The bill would also force internet service providers to buy surveillance equipment at a cost of about $1 million per provider, a stipulation that could force many to shut down in an economic environment where hard currency is scarce.

Zimbabwe has reportedly acquired electronic censorship and surveillance systems from China, which the rights organisation, Human Rights Watch, said in a report was the world's most advanced "system of internet censorship and surveillance, popularly known as the 'Great Firewall.'"

"We are very concerned about this proposed legislation because of the lack of judicial involvement and oversight, the potential loss of privacy in communications, as well as the costs and technical difficulties involved in meeting the requirements of the Bill," ZISPA said in a statement.

"As a result, ZISPA has prepared a submission to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Transport and Communications, requesting that the Bill be withdrawn, pending further consultations and an examination of similar legislation and its implementation in other countries." © IRIN

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]