$200/month - the cost of broadband in SA

I paid my Telkom bill this morning and had to reflect on the charges that I am paying to the fixed-line monopoly. The “line rental” is R693 [sic] per month, which is for a 4mbps ADSL line with no service. According to recent reports, average broadband use in the world is just over 11GB per month, so let me add the price of R719 for unshaped 10GB/month of usage from my ISP as well as R70 for an ad hoc additional 1GB. That comes to R1481 per month, i.e. $200 (US, to the nearest cent) at today's exchange rate. Foreign readers will think that I am inventing this, but this is the actual price of being connected in South Africa. The sunshine and mild weather, for which we can thank no Earthly authority, are still free.

Update on 2009-10-24: an Afrikaans version of this post has appeared on my Sake24 blog.


Broken/Stukkend 4 : receiving e-mail from customers

Picture by Wikimedia user Bidgee
A friend's frustrating attempts at correspondence with Telstra, Australia's lumbering telecoms giant, has galvanised me to reprise my occasional series about customer service. He has been finding it impossible to get any reaction from Telstra about his serious billing problem by e-mail and his calls to their “customer service” numbers are simply terminating in Tagalog or Cantonese voicemail promts. The e-mail channel consists of a web-based form that allows the customer to enter 200 characters ‒ hardly sufficient for describing a real complaint.

I myself have recently had Standard Bank, “a leader in banking technology in South Africa” which is busy “ensuring the highest standards of professionalism, integrity, and fairness” ask me to resend a 18-month old message to which they had assigned the reference number 1955721, since although they have not yet replied to it, they reportedly no longer have it. If anyone from Standard Bank is reading this and cares to refute the alleged loss of the message, please post a comment below.

Why are many companies so terribly bad at replying to e-mail? My conjecture is that the inappropriate pricing model (free at the point of delivery) of e-mail is partly to blame. Postal mail and a telephone call to a service center both require the supplicant to invest time and money in lodging the enquiry. Of course, an e-mail also requires time but not as much as holding for 30 minutes for the call centre. With telephonic customer service, any unmatched demand for service simply disappears as customers hang up when they are tired of waiting. E-mailed enquiries pile up, and much faster than postal mail. Why not automatically return unhandled queries or unopened e-mail messages, flagged appropriately, to the sender after a week (say) has expired?

To my surprise, I have recently had the South African Post Office reply to a message within 48 hours. The Hong Kong Post Office took a week to respond to a similar query. Kudos to the SAPO for this! On the other hand, I am still waiting for a reply to my e-mail of 20 September to CustomerCare@virginmobile.co.za and have all but lost hope. I am reminded of a remark by Niels Kjellerup of the Call Centre Manager's Forum in a recent BNet podcast:
“outsourcing [of call centres] is only for those businesses who don’t care about customers.”
He went on to explain that these are typically businesses which have customers tied up in a contract and really do not need to provide anything resembling reasonable service. I tend to agree.

Earlier posts in this series

Broken/Stukkend 1 : in QLD's “captial” city
Broken/Stukkend 2 : DSTV se rekeninge-afdeling
Broken/Stukkend 3 : SARS eFiling's e-mail


Telkom and me, at parliament

On Tuesday, had been invited to Cape Town to take part in hearings of the Parliamentary Committee on Communications on South Africa's mobile interconnection (or, mobile termination) rates. I deviated a bit from my written submission but I hope that I impressed three things on most members of the committee:
  1. the situation is not new, and had been unfolding under their (and the regulator's) noses for more than ten years now;
  2. government, as a shareholder in most of the major telecommunications operators, cannot now accuse them of “greed”; and
  3. that Telkom's fixed termination rates are at least as disproportionally high as the mobile rates.

It was a nice experience and I was impressed by the obvious eagerness of most committee members to learn more about the issue, especially MPs Vadi, de Lille, Killian and Zondi. The Deputy Minister of Justice did not appear to appreciate my second point, though. The CEO of Vodacom also attended the hearing, as did executives from Neotel, Telkom, the CEO of Vox Telecom etc.

Since I was in Cape Town only for a few hours, I heard only two other submissions – that by Telkom, for which the time of three senior executives could apparently easily be free up, and a personal submission by Thabiso Mokgoro from Accenture. Telkom's entire contribution consisted of (as far as I could tell) some slides from their annual report and a plea to regulate a special interconnection rate from public phones to mobiles. Has anyone actually seen people use public phones? Mokgoro's submission recounted his personal experience of excessively high roaming rates. MTN had charged him around R25 000,00 after a visit to Botswana. I really think it would not be disturbing if these operators alerted one by SMS each time the unbilled amount went up by more than R1 000,00 (say) - even if it is only to express their gratitude for the custom.


Cellphone operators under fire over rates http://www.sowetan.co.za/News/Article.aspx?id=1078069
Parlement kap selfoongroepe http://www.sake24.com/articles/default/display_article.aspx?ArticleId=6-104_2556976