A true per second rip off
THE CELLPHONE is truly a marvel.
It’s astonishing to think that what’s now become so ubiquitous and essential to many people’s lives has been available in South Africa for only a dozen years. I can remember friends being so fascinated by their first cellphone back in 1995 that they’d ring up huge bills playing the “Where are you?” game around the house.
We’re still playing that game, but instead of “I’m in the kitchen, can you hear me?” we’re saying: “I’m in London, can you see me?” The fact that you can personally be contacted just about anywhere in the world is something we take for granted now but not long ago it would have seemed the ultimate luxury.
Er, I speak too soon. It’s still the ultimate luxury.
International roaming charges are one (just one, mind) of the industry’s dirty little secrets. After a recent trip to Europe, instead of doing the typical South African thing of swearing softly and deleting your electronic telecommunications statement, I tapped the figures into a spreadsheet. That they save money on postage but then won’t make available your statement in Excel is adding insult to injury. But that’s a minor insult compared to the injurious costs.
Every second – not minute – on the phone cost me 38c. Every time I opened my mouth – whether there was someone else at the other end of the line or not – I spent 38c. Every breath I took in between sentences set me back 38c.
One call that lasted four seconds and which probably went along the lines of “What? What? You’re breaking up – I can’t hear you. What? This damn network is driving me fu…” came to R21,29.
Local calls handled by the roaming partner in Europe are billed at “true” per second rates (probably called so because most of the information you get from operators isn’t true). If you take those calls out of the equation, you’re being milked at the rate of 47c/second for staying connected overseas – more than international Internet calls cost per minute.
The main reason is that almost 70% of the 71 connections I made were to access network services. To hear “Sorry, the mailbox service is not available at present, please try again later” costs you R3,48. My bill was littered with these R3,48s, not all of which were for voice mail.
I don’t know exactly how these charges are divvied up between the South African and international networks: interconnection regimes are the industry’s best-guarded secret. To stop the gouging, the European Union regulator is on the verge of implementing legislation that will impose roaming tariff cuts of up to 70% on all operators in its member countries. To make up for it, they’ll probably up the charges for those outside the EU.
In SA the interconnect agreements between MTN, Vodacom and Cell C are also responsible for SA’s high cellphone call costs. SA’s regulator is investigating. Which means, if history is a guide, that SA can look forward to some of the world’s highest cellphone rates for the foreseeable future.
So where are you? It doesn’t really matter. Whether you’re in the kitchen at home or in front of Tower Bridge, if you’re South African, you’ll pay for the privilege. Through your nose.