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Opinions of Friday, 12 July 2013

Columnist: Dery, Francis

Is Your Phone Carrier Stealing From You?

Sure. It’s like daylight robbery out here. It’s happening on your cell phone, your iPad, your high-speed internet connection and every service that the MTNs, Vodafones, GLOs, Airtels, Expressos, TIGOs, etc. of Ghana are selling to us. I will come to the specifics in a minute. For now, a trip down memory lane beckons.
Gone are the days when there was just one mobile phone company in Ghana called Mobitel. In those days, they also had that gigantic phone that Former President Jerry Rawlings often carried – CellStar E324 it was called - much to the terror of coup-plotters and now roof- top-shouting, rule-of-law, democracy-deepening politicians. Then came along, Spacefon and CellTell, two new cellular companies which sought to upend Mobitel’s dominance of the cell phone market – and they did, for competition brings down prices right? Wrong! Prices went right through the roof. Soon, the hip thing was to carry a Spacefon-connected cell phone, while Mobitel’s market space was shrinking fast and CellTell’s had all but disappeared. Still, fewer Ghanaians could afford handsets and the bills that came with them. In fact so luxurious was a cellphone that only high-earners could afford them. An uncle, who despite his not-so-high earnings, managed to have phones from all three carriers – Mobitel, Spacefon and CellTell – simply because he believed it gave him the appearance of wealth.
Fast forward 2013, and cell phones are everywhere, literally. It is sort of a good thing right? A great equalizer – competition, lower prices, better services, etc. No. The services have worsened, the prices are higher and the naked stealing by these companies have become pervasive. The days when people dangled a set of keys in one hand and a cell phone in another, immediately forcing the conclusion that one had a car and was rich enough to afford a cell phone are far gone. Now, my good friend the banana seller, the peanut seller, the mason, the carpenter, the shoe shine boy, literally, everyone, has a cell phone. Now, we are all connected and can talk to each other any time, whether you live in Nandom, Dzelukope, or Kamakpen. In fact, we can now do more than talk to each other. We can send money to each other instead of passing the money through the unreliable uncle who will wind up making deductions from the money for “administrative costs”; we can get on Whazzup, Facebook and Twitter – all on our cell phones. We can send text messages to each other even when we do not want to speak with each other, especially, IF WE DON’T WANT TO SPEAK WITH EACH OTHER. We can do so many things with these phones that listing them all here will take the entire article; and we pay for the ability to do all these things, but we just don’t want anyone to steal from us, and there lies the rub. What is missing in all this capability and this new flooding presence of the cell phone is the STEALING THAT PHONE CARRIERS UNLEASH ON ALL OF US.
A Phone Carrier simply is a company which makes it possible for you to do with your cell phone, all of the above capabilities I have listed and much more. Many of them even sell phones, although that is not part of their traditional role, which is to provide the connectivity services between phones which allow Phone A to talk to Phone B and vice versa. These days, they provide internet services and many other services as well. They are your Vodafonees, Expressos, Airtels, MTNs, GLOs, TIGOs, to mention a few. Six cell phone companies in an estimated population of 25 million may sound like overcrowding; especially, if you eliminate the kids and very old and extreme technophobes, and then add claims like the one by MTN – that it has over 10 million subscribers – the space is pretty junked up. Of course the penchant of some Ghanaians to own THREE cellphones which they claim is for connectivity reasons triples the market space for the phone carriers. In this melée, there are bound to be some underhand dealings – stealing. Period.
For example, previously, if you bought a data bundle from your phone carrier for internet purposes and it run out, you were simply disconnected. You could not browse the internet till you purchased another bundle. These days, you buy the bundle and when it runs out, you find your connection is on for about a minute or two and still you cannot browse. It is when you buy your new package and attempt to bundle that you find the shocker – you cannot bundle because your purchase is insufficient for the bundle you purchased. For the few seconds that you were struggling to bundle and the Phone Carrier claims they didn’t disconnect you when your bundle finished, they charged you an above-market-rate, more like if you have no money in your bank account and you overdraw your account by ONE PESEWA, the bank processes your transaction but turns around and charges you TEN CEDIS for the ONE PESEWA. For an extra 2 minutes and 39 seconds when your 500 GIG of data runs out, your internet service at Vodafonee for instance will cost you a little over GH¢11.00. For a GH¢15 bundle for 750 MEG of data for your Airtel Modem, you cannot rebundle and browse the internet because apparently as soon as you load your money, Airtel steals Two (2) pesewas. Every customer I have interviewed about this says it is 2 PESEWAS. This is NOT coincidence; this is planned, deliberate stealing.
Now 2 pesewas by itself may not be much, but in the general scheme of the economies of scale and relative prices, if MTN is able to steal 2 pesewas from half of its 10 million customers nationwide (assuming that half of its customers use USB modem devices to connect to the internet), this comes to ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND GHANA CEDIS. Assuming on average a 750 MEG bundle lasts for two weeks, and that customers regularly rebundle every two weeks, that means MTN rakes in GH¢200,000.00 every month. In a year, they rake in GH¢2.4 Million, for what? For doing nothing. Just plain old stealing. If you or I stole GH¢2.4 Million where do you think we will end up? All the phone carriers are doing it, in one form or the other.
In the Vodafone example and using the MTN customer number of 5 million used in the previous example, if one were charged GH¢11.50 for the extra 2 minutes 39 seconds that Vodafone allows a customer to stay connected, this comes to FIFTY-SEVEN MILLION, FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND GHANA CEDIS MONTHLY. Yes, you read right GH¢57,500,000.00! And this is a very conservative estimate. These phone companies are preying on our collective ignorance and simple-mindedness to steal from us, especially, the fact that anyone trying to assert their consumer rights is very quickly branded “too known” by the same people who stand to benefit from such assertion of consumer rights. And by the time we know it, Vodafone and company would be rich enough to pack their bags and high-tail out of this country, leaving Ghana Telecom an even skeletal copy of its previous self. So instead of just thinking about a “mere” 2 pesewas or ¢11.50, we need to think about RELATIVE PRICES/VALUES and ECONOMIES OF SCALE. Once you get that concept and reality right, you will realize the aggregation implications and no longer take kindly to the daylight robbery these phone companies are subjecting all of us to.
Is your phone carrier stealing from you? You bet, but they are doing it in such small amounts you may not know it. I will return to this subject again as investigations continue.

Francis Dery