Done roamin’

A true per sec­ond rip off

Finweek English Edition - - Openers - BY FRIK ELS frike@fin­

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.

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