‘Disappearing act: Where is my mobile data going?’

2016-09-26 16:11
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Mobile networks such as MTN and Vodacom have come under the spotlight in recent weeks over their allegedly high data prices as the #datamustfall hashtag gathered pace on Twitter.

Subsequently, the networks also appeared in Parliament last week where a telecommunications and postal services committee held hearings on why data costs in South Africa remain high.

In recent years, customers have also taken to social media and websites such as HelloPeter.com to complain of buying data that then disappears shortly thereafter.

READ: What happened to my data? Vodacom answers MPs

Previously, the likes of MTN has blamed this phenomenon on faster networks and more advanced, data-heavy smartphones.

And last week in Parliament, Vodacom’s executive head of innovation Jannie van Zyl also addressed the "myth" that people's data was depleting more rapidly.

Faster networks, better phones and consumers' own habits have all led to users' perceptions that their data is "disappearing", said van Zyl.

“Data cannot disappear. It is consumed by your handset,” he told the committee.

“Sometimes you use your data; sometimes your handset uses it in the background that you don’t know about.”

READ: MTN data costs have decreased 73% in 5 years

He used the new Apple iOS upgrade as an example, where the update requires 1GB of data. Many consumers wouldn’t be aware of that, he said.

But Fin24 user Adrian has questioned this response:  

I speak as an engineer with a B.Sc. Eng. (electronics) and Technical Director of an electronics development company. So I am not the average user and I am very well aware of what data is and how our mobile data systems work.

I am an MTN subscriber and I have been having trouble with my data disappearing. This has been going on for a few months, but I just don't have the time to deal with it. I have been using various data tracking apps to monitor my usage and for the last few months this has been "My Data Manager", on my Android.

These apps always warn you that there could be differences between the way they measure data and the networks. But, in my mind, I would assume them to be somewhat accurate, say at least within 10%. Actually I would assume better than this, but to be on the safe side and give the networks some benefit of doubt, 10% should be more than enough.

However, I have been seeing that my data limits are reached a lot sooner than showed by My Data Manager, and in the last month I had calculated that I had used around 20% of the data..

But seeing this trend in the months prior I had configured my Android device to limit my data usage. So I had stopped background mobile data on all but essential apps and monitored my usage, knowing full well the difference between what data would be used to send text versus media etc. Having this configuration I was still able to hit a limit of 500MB where My Data Tracker was saying that I had used just over 100MB.

I was recently in Argentina where I was not going to use data roaming (how about the next fight being #roamingfeesmustfall) and so acquired an Argentinian SIM for my stay. This gave me 50MB per day at a cost of 6 Pesos per day (R1 ~ 1.1 Pesos) (interesting cost comparison as their cost per MB is similar to ours but purchased at such small quantities. I was not able to get a quote on a "bulk" rate of 1GB). But, what I found most interesting is that I got a SMS from them everyday when I hit my 50MB cap, and My Data Manager would say that I have used 51MB. So this gives me more confidence in the accuracy of My Data Manager and Claro (the Argentine network I used) and less confidence in MTN.

I think part of the problem, is that call centre operators and PR people for these companies think that their systems are infallible whereas they are most certainly not. I have had countless instances where I have seen bugs in their systems.

Just one example is when I was charged for an MMS which I never sent, to a number that I never had. Or got a subscription on my invoice from these SMS subscription services that I object to and avoid like the plague and did not interact with in any way.

Or even today, I got a missed call from a number, I phoned them back and they said that they had not even used their phone today. All systems have bugs and not bug free.

Sometimes these bugs could be considered to be programmed features as they happen to generate convenient revenue. But often in trying to deal with these problems, the consumer is at a disadvantage, because they may not know any better, or they may not have the time to deal with it, or both, or they are at the mercy of a stubborn call centre agent who has trust in an infallible system (e.g. "I’m sorry sir, the systems says that you did X Y Z" when I most certainly did not) or does not have the patience to make calls to various departments to get to the bottom of it. I think that something needs to be done to put the consumer in a stronger position with these mobile network operators.

I was amazed to see what Afrihost have offered which is so much better than MTN in your ability to monitor and control data usage and expenditure with their app.

So there are some of my thoughts.

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