Mobile networks: Stop mugging us!

THE other day I furiously walked into an Econet shop at Avondale Shopping Centre in Harare to ask and demand an explanation on why my airtime and data bundles had just evaporated soon after I had recharged.

Editor’s Memo Dumisani Muleya

How on earth can my credit disappear like morning mist; like dew in a dry summer morning sun or chaff blown away by an angry whirlwind? Or indeed like smoke from a chimney.

Nasty terms like daylight robbery, mugging and organised crime were ringing in my mind. I thought this was systematic fraud by other means.

Without much courtesy, I waltzed through the queue — virtually barging my way to the customer service counter — and confronted a calm fine-looking, smiling lady who appeared a bit bewildered by the intensity of my charge out of the blue.

After some curt exchanges, I took a breather to listen to her explanation. It went like this: “The problem is the type of phone you are using; smartphones have too many background applications and if you don’t disable them, they continue running and draining your airtime and data bundles. Can I have your phone?”

I gave it to her. She took it and scrolled through to settings, before advising: “You must switch off your data services and management function. If you do that, your airtime and data bundles won’t disappear anymore.”

Underwhelmed and frustrated by her nice yet unconvincing sophistry as I expected much better, I took my phone and walked away. I was not re-assured, of course, because her superficially plausible explanation was rather unhelpful.
What is the moral of the story?

The story is about the business practices, pricing structures and billing systems of mobile network operators in Zimbabwe. While people do complain about NetOne and Telecel, Econet has become the major subject of debate on whether it is dealing with its customers properly and professionally.

Many people, loyal Econet customers for that matter, are now asking if the company is behaving in a fair, honest and transparent manner. Is it providing quality service and value for money?

This is an issue worrying millions out there. ICT minister Supa Mandiwanzira is also worried. More so, after a period where many customers complained about mysteriously disappearing airtime on a much larger scale, forcing the telecoms giant to refund some affected clients.

Econet’s corporate practices and service charges have become a major issue on social media and other public fora. Some customers feel the company is now abusing its position as the market leader to offer shoddy services without giving a damn about its clients.

Given that thousands of customers have been complaining, with some protesting by switching networks to its competitors, Econet has been rather responsive.

Well, sort of.

Like the lady at Avondale, the official explanation basically is that smartphones are to blame. This falls short of saying, “it’s not our fault”. Background apps and third-party services are to blame. So disabling the apps on your phone, which chew up your airtime, is the solution. Get on with it. That appears to be the line.
But is this the real or full story?

It might be, but then how about airtime also disappearing from “un-smartphones”?

Studies (one such done by US analytics software company Verint) have shown telecom companies now top the list of offering the worst customer experience these days compared, for instance, to banks.

The advent of smartphones brought a sharp rise in mobile data consumption, but the surge is still expected to upswing even further. While consumption levels dramatically increase, thanks to new smart devices, there cannot be an equally dramatic improvement in infrastructure, quality service and customer care.

It then comes as no surprise that customers are seeing declining levels of service delivery from telecom providers.

The situation is worsened by their shrinking revenues due to technological innovations and competition. But then to maintain their revenue bases, telecom firms require radically new approaches, not ripping off loyal customers. Where is Potraz — the local telecoms regulator — in all this? (See Page 3 and businessdigest Page 1)

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