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Cell C good, everyone else not so much (or my thoughts on acquiring an iPhone)

9 Jan

At some point in the next few months my cellphone contract will expire and I will be free of the shackles of contractual obligations and able to forage for the best cellular deal on the market.

Even though I have brief intellectual flirtation with the idea of switching to an Android phone or even a Windows Mobile device the reality is that I am far too deeply invested in the Apple ecosystem to really want to switch. That and the added value that other operating systems and ecosystems offer is not sufficiently better (or not better at all) than what I can get on an iPhone.

Right now I am on Vodacom (although with an independent service provider) and while I am not unhappy with the service I have received the simple fact is that you can get a decent deal if you take out a new contract, simply renewing a contract will get you a much smaller subsidy.

I am also not afraid of porting networks. This is in spite of my two previous experiences of porting: From Vodacom to MTN (where the phone didn’t work for the better part of the month) and from MTN back to Vodacom (where I couldn’t receive calls from MTN for about two weeks). You might say I am a sucker for extracting maximum value from my service provider.

When it comes down to the decision there are a few issues that come into play.

1)    Network coverage at my home: Vodacom coverage is not great and MTN is not much better. 8ta voice coverage is OK but without an external antenna data coverarge is weak.

Cell C is the clear winner in this race, it has a tower at a nearby shopping centre and I never see less than four bars of signal on my iPad (which uses a Cell C data sim)

2)    The combination of monthly cost and bundled services.

It is actually the cost/benefit ratio that is the real kicker because I can live with less than optimal coverage if I feel like I am getting value for money. I have found that if you moan enough to the networks they will at least make some sort of effort to improve their service at you location.

So it comes down to the offerings. I am starting with Vodacom and MTN because they have the least imagination when it comes to structuring packages.

I am topping out the budget for this exercise at R529 a month because that’s what it would cost me to get a 16GB iPhone 5 from Vodacom on an iPhone 120 package (120 minutes, 100 SMSs and 500MB of data), there are cheaper ways to get an iPhone from Vodacom, the cheapest being R399 a month on a SmartData Lite package (75 off peak minutes, 100 SMSs and 100MB of data) but considering that I can only just get by on 500MB of data that seems like a good place to set the benchmark.

MTN lists three options for the each of the iPhone variants and even though I would love a 32GB iPhone we are sticking with the 16GB for the purposes of the exercise.

For R429 MTN will give you the Anytime 200 package (R200 airtime value, 25 SMSs and 250MB of data) this is a better deal than the R399 Vodacom offering mostly because of the extra data and the fact that the airtime can be used at any time.

For R529 (the same price as the iPhone 120 package) you can move up to the Anytime 350 package (R350 airtime value, 50 SMSs and 250MB of data). Given that people like me rarely use more than our allocated amount of minutes it is really all about the data and not about the voice in these packages so at this price point I would be going with Vodacom because of the additional SMSs and the higher data allocation.

8ta is offering the cheapest way to get your hands on an iPhone 5 with the phone available for R358 on Smart Contract Basic (0 minutes, 0 SMSs and 350MB of data) with no included minutes the contract is going to cost you more if you actually use the phone but this actually amounts to 24 month interest free loan to buy an iPhone with a little data thrown in.

8ta’s highest end offering is for R458 on Smart Contract 3 (230 minutes to 8ta and landline numbers, 60 minutes to other numbers, 50 SMSs and 500 MB of data). If any of your regular calls are to landlines or 8ta subscribers those 230 minutes could come in handy.

I have left Cell C far last for a good reason, something about saving the best for last.

The little network that could is offering the iPhone 5 of Straight Up 200 for R399 (for a limited time) and with that you get 200 minutes, 200 SMSs and 500MB of data.

When compared to the Vodacom offering you are paying R129 less for 80 extra minutes, 100 extra SMSs and the same amount of data. And with the way Cell C let you bolt on additional services you could throw in an extra 500MB of data and still come in at R54 less than you would be paying Vodacom.

Sounds like a no brainer to me, in fact you would have to have a vendetta against Cell C or really crap coverage in the places you frequent not to take this deal.

Unless you are buying your iPhone for cash, in which case remember to shop around when your contract is up for renewal.


Cancel your cell account? Don’t make me laugh

29 Sep

First published on MyBroadband | 29 September, 2010

One of the dangers of being a parent is being exposed to innumerable children’s TV shows and movies. In Beauty and the Beast there is a line, which I like to ponder on every now and then, where the villain – Gaston – says to his sidekick: “LeFou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking,” to which Lefou replies: “A dangerous pastime.”

Well, I have been thinking and that is a dangerous pastime.

Mostly I have been thinking about how I am going to lay my grubby hands on a phone to replace my current one, which is over two years old. I can either wait until December for an upgrade, till March to take out a new contract, buy a new phone out of pocket or cancel my contract and start over again.

I am by nature a curious person so I decided to find out what it would cost me to cancel my contract. This is a little exercise that I go through once every two years to confirm to myself that nothing has changed in the cellular service provider industry.

With six months to go I would have to cough up R5 301 to cancel my current contract. The nice man at the contact centre was nice enough to explain how this figure is broken down: R3 051 in rentals up until the end of the contract date and R2 250 for the phone. This is with Altech Autopage Cellular (which has had my account for the past 4 years).

Luckily, I was sitting down at the time. It appears that the strategy is that to charge the customer the full outstanding amount plus almost the full subsidy that was part of the deal 18 months ago.

The problem is that this was all supposed to change ages ago. Icasa issued regulations that were supposed to ban these exploitative behaviours, but then Vodacom threatened to take them to court because the regulations were, admittedly, deeply flawed. Then at the end of last year Icasa issued a draft code of conduct to make sure that service providers behaved themselves. Clearly nothing has happened to get this code of conduct implemented either.

So, even though the service providers have known that the way they do business is not just flawed but wrong (even if it is a good way to squeeze money out of subscribers), for more than two years they have made no effort to change their ways.

They have continued to force people to continue to pay for contracts that they don’t want and don’t need. On top of this, they have made it impossible to cancel a contract (without paying up the remaining money owed in advance). They also charge onerous cancellation fees, in the name of recouping the subsidy that they gave you at the beginning of the contract.

There are any number of gratuitous x-rated descriptions of what these business practises entail but considering that this is a family site I will leave those up to your imagination.

The part of this that makes me really angry is that there are two very simple steps that any service provider could take to show that they are truly customer focussed. One: Allow the customer to cancel a contract at any point in the duration of the contract. Two: Allow them to pay back the subsidy that was used to give them a ‘free’ phone.

These two actions would enable the service providers to keep customers happy, while ensuring that they are not out of pocket from a subsidy point of view.

I would guess that the network operators (who shell out the subsidies and control the contract terms) are completely complicit in this little extortion scheme so this is probably not something that one service provider could do on their own. Still, I don’t see the MDs of any service providers (except maybe Virgin Mobile and they don’t really count) standing up and shouting for consumer rights. They are quite happy to sit back and screw the customer for every cent they can get.

In the end it comes down to one simple fact. Customer service in the cellular industry means keeping the cattle calm and peaceful while they are lead to the slaughterhouse. This is never going to change until Icasa gets off its ass and gets some meaningful regulations implemented.

Until then, keep the mooing down to a minimum because the bosses are trying to sleep on their bed of R200 notes.

BlackBerry Take 2

13 Aug

First published on MyBroadband | 13 August, 2010

Last week I wrote a column about the highs and lows that BlackBerry maker, Research in Motion (RIM) is going through at the moment and it would appear that some of the BlackBerry fanboys in the forums took offence to my take on the state of the smartphone market.

I was going to leave it alone, but then I was watching the Twitter feed from the Tech4Africa conference, where Justin Spratt, from Internet Solutions, was quoted as saying that by the end of next year BlackBerry will be in steep decline. I apologise to Justin if that is not exactly what he said, but it was tweeted by enough people that it should be close enough.

His argument seems to be that RIM are focussed on keeping the carriers happy and going forward it is much more important to keep the customers happy.

I don’t disagree with him, but I think that the fundamental flaw in the BlackBerry business model revolves around two issues.

The first of these, and the one that most people in the forums seemed to bring up, is the way that BlackBerry services are packaged. You pay a fixed fee for all the mail and internet access you can use on a monthly basis. For South Africans, who are used to paying through the nose for web access, this is a brilliant offer. No massive data bills and simple setup makes for a compelling offering. However, assuming that data costs are going to remain high indefinitely is a dangerous mistake to make. There will come a point when the lure of prettier and better handsets will overcome the attraction of fixed cost internet and email.

With Cell C and Telkom set to make waves in the mobile field it is likely that the one area that they might target is giving smartphone users a better deal in terms of voice and data bundles than they currently get.

The second issue that I have with BlackBerry is a direct consequence of the first. Because all communications to and from a BlackBerry user has to pass through a BlackBerry server, either controlled by RIM itself or by a company. For most consumers (not corporates) this means that there is not only a single point of failure for their email and internet access, but also a really attractive target for government snoops to use to intercept conversations.

Corporate types with their own servers are better off, but not everyone can afford to run their own server. So the majority of people will be feeding their information through a server that government spooks can get access to, if the government of the country you are in demands that RIM hands over the keys to the house.

Based on recent events, it would appear that RIM is not willing to lose markets in order to protect its users. If that is not worrisome then I am not sure what is. And I am not even a privacy fanatic.

Knives out for BlackBerry

5 Aug

First published on MyBroadband | 05 August, 2010

This week looks like a Charles Dickens novel for BlackBerry. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Just as RIM launched their big reveal of the BlackBerry Torch and the new BlackBerry 6 operating system, governments in the Middle East such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, are threatening to cut all local BlackBerry users off because they (the government, that is) can’t snoop on the encrypted traffic between BlackBerry users.

The problem is that if RIM were facing this kind of issue in more open societies it would probably be able to challenge this through the courts, but given the autocratic nature of the countries in question it seems that it has two choices, comply or shut up shop.

Even more worrying is that it appears that more and more countries have suddenly woken up to how BlackBerry moves information around the world and suddenly they are jumping up and down and shouting, “me too, me too”.

How the company will deal with half the world’s governments suddenly demanding that they change their business practises and let governments snoop (at will) on people’s private conversations is anyone’s guess.

It’s not like RIM needs any more challenges at the moment. For the first time since the start of the crackberry addiction, more Android phones were sold in the US than BlackBerrys. Even with the bad press that Apple is getting around the iPhone4 antenna issue, the damn things are still flying off the shelves. And then there is Windows Phone 7 that is going to hit the stores later this year. BlackBerry needs to come to the party and it is hoping that the combination of the Torch and the new operating system will be enough to keep it in the game.

For the most part I think that if staying in the game is its intention then it has done enough. From looking at reports from the launch they have fixed a lot of the issues with the OS that irked me (like getting a real web browser).

That combined with a decent range of handsets, from the Torch to the Curve and the Pearl, mean that corporates and keyboard junkies will keep on buying handsets just because that is what they have always had or because that is what their corporate IT department says they need to have to see their mail on the go.

BlackBerry will, however, keep losing market share, simply because most of the new entrants into the market are choosing to go with the more attractive offerings from the likes of Samsung, Apple and HTC.

BlackBerry has, over the course of the last two years, moved from being the dominant force in the smartphone market, to  one that is constantly having to play catch up with companies that have a much better understanding of what the majority of users want and which are able to deliver it faster.

The jury is out on whether RIM is following the same path that Palm trod in the PDA market, but I, for one, am not planning to buy a Torch any time soon.