Satelite phones are mainly used by soldiers in war, public safety agencies, energy companies, shippers, and search and rescue organizations.
This comes barely three weeks after President Lungu announced at a press conference that government was terminating all unnecessary expenditure as a cost-saving measure in view of the collapsing economy and budget overrun.
At his press conference, President Lungu also said ministers would not be allowed to travel outside the country unless it is absolutely necessary as advised by the Head of State.
But on his first trip out of the country following his pronouncement, President Lungu last week travelled to South Africa with a huge entourage, which included foreign affairs minister Harry Kalaba, commerce minister Margaret Mwanakatwe, his special assistant for press Amos Chanda and assistant for project monitoring and implementation Lucky Mulusa.
Others who accompanied President Lungu to South Africa for the China-Africa cooperation forum are his political advisor Kaizer Zulu, legal advisor Sukwana Lukangaba as well as his personal photographers, among other protocol officers and foreign affairs staff, while his economic advisor Hibeene Mwiinga was dropped from the entourage.
Meanwhile, according to a Cabinet memorandum, Secretary to the Cabinet Dr Roland Msiska has asked permanent secretary in charge of administration at Cabinet Office, Margaret Miyoba, to expedite the procurement of satellite phones.
“Cabinet at its 25th special meeting held on November 26, 2015, under any other business, took note the concerns that there were communication challenges with ministers and deputy ministers, especially when they travelled out of the country or to remote parts of the country,” Msiska wrote.
“Cabinet also directed the Secretary to the Cabinet to procure satellite mobile phones for ministers and deputy ministers with dedicated Zamtel lines and also work out modalities for settling the bills. You are required to expedite implementation of the above decision by Cabinet.”
But a UK-based IT expert, Raphael Kamanga, said the decision is not only expensive but also a huge national security risk.
“Satellite phones route voice and text communication via satellites instead of land-based cell towers and they have coverage almost anywhere in the world, including the north and south poles; no matter where you are. This is why these satellite phones are commonly used among top military officials, secret service or intelligence wings and some adventurers,” Kamanga said. “But for a government like Zambia, it is a strange decision… firstly, most models of mobile satellite phones are between US$500 and US$1,000 (about K5,000 – K10,000) per set.
The latest Extreme 9575 from Iridium providers costs more than US$1,200. That’s just for buying the handset. Now, to use this satellite phone may cost up to about US$1.50 per minute. Compare that to K1 per minute on MTN or Airtel, this will be a huge cost to the government.
You will find that with most providers, calling another provider is quite expensive. Receiving calls can be very costly as well, especially if it originates from a landline.”
He said allowing more than one hundred government officials who have access to Cabinet minutes to use satellite phones is risky.
“Secondly, I don’t know the regulations for owning a Satellite phone now, but in many countries, you are not even allowed to communicate via satellite because by doing so, you can pass on any message to another person without the government knowing or intercepting the call. Not even ZICTA will be able to regulate these calls, and you are talking about how many ministers? All these have access to the Cabinet decisions, have access to the President.
That’s a careless decision to say the least,” said Kamanga. “And I don’t know how cheap and convenient this will be compared to roaming on a normal cell phone network because Satellite calls are transmitted to the nearest satellite, which means you often need a sort of line-of-sight connection with that particular satellite in the orbit. Which is why satellite phones work best from outdoors. If you’re calling a non-satellite phone, the call is routed through an earth station that patches it into the local telephone network. But these ministers, when they travel, they are in their hotels or in conference rooms in the middle of skyscrapers with very bad satellite signal connections.”