In the wake of continuing reports about poor service by mobile phone operators in the region, the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) has formulated new regulations that give it the power to send representatives of mobile networks to jail.

The regulator is hoping that the new rules will spur operators in the Southern African country to improve their network and customer service quality. But TNM, one of the mobile operators in Malawi, said it such regulations will hinder the growth of the telecom sector in the country.

"Large penalties and imprisonment for noncompliance are areas of regulatory concern to the company," said

TNM Managing Director Willem Swart in a report. TNM is seeking a renewal of its operating license and has already engaged Macra on the new regulations, saying that it is looking for rules that will help the operator grow and be innovative.

Over the past three years, operators in the region have been engaged in price wars that have resulted in cheaper communication services. But the sudden call-rate reductions have produced congestion and unreliable network service, as customers can now manage to speaker longer for less.

Network congestion, dropped calls, network outages and a widespread lack of network availability are some of the problems facing consumers in Africa. Quality assurance tests that have been carried out in several countries in the region including South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania and Nigeria have shown that all operators have been failing to meet service quality levels specified in service level agreements.

Tanzania was the first country to threaten stiffer penalties and prison sentences for mobile phone operators that fail to deliver quality services to customers.

In Zambia, the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA) has already dragged the country's three mobile operators -- MTN, Airtel and Zamtel -- to court over alleged poor quality of service, which the authority said is criminal in nature because customers were being exploited.

ZICTA claims all three operators have been failing to meet minimum quality of service and have also been failing to comply with the provisions of quality of service guidelines. Just last week, ZICTA forced Airtel to give refunds to over 28,000 customers who lost airtime balance amounting to more than US$178,000 total due to a system error.

The Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC), meanwhile, has been imposing heavy fines in a bid to force operators to improve their networks and reduce congestion. The NCC has in most cases banned promotions aimed at maintaining or attracting new customers except where adequate capacity is provided by the network.

"Although prison sentences may scare aware new investments in the telecom sector, it will move existing operators to act responsibly towards their customers," said Edith Mwale, telecom analyst at the Africa Center for ICT Development.