Net now domain of all with ‘zero to mobile’ wave

2011-07-16 07:53

Only a few years ago, it was the ­hallmark of a modern teenager to walk around with their head bowed and all their concentration invested in their mobile phones.

Today, such behaviour knows no age barrier, and it has become as widespread as the smartphone that is the cause of this “bowed-head syndrome” afflicting ­society.

No longer is the smartphone the ­exclusive preserve of high earners able to pay top dollar for a monthly contract with a cellphone service provider. ­Today, you can even get one on a prepaid contract.

The cellphone has leapfrogged the personal computer as the source of ­digital information, says Mapula ­Bodibe, MTN’s general manager for its consumer segment. It is a development that ­confounds global trends, especially in developed countries where the ­evolution has been systematic.

This means that businesses, ­students and individuals, who hitherto could not access the virtual world for lack of a device, have now ramped onto the information superhighway.

It has also meant that ordinary ­people in far-flung regions of the ­country can go to a shop with nothing more than their handset and return home having bought a loaf of bread, ­something that both the consumer and ­trader benefit from.

Unlike in developed countries where the trend has been to progressively ­acquire a fixed line and then a personal computer and then mobile data, South Africans are moving from “zero to ­mobile”, as Bodibe says.

With this comes a shock for some ­customers, especially when they ­discover that accessing the internet eats up a lot of their airtime.

“That is why we have introduced an education programme on the usage of data bundles. Customers are realising that they can get a megabyte for as little as R2 and that, depending on use, R10 data can last up to a week,” says Bodibe.

Even better, Bodibe adds, sceptical customers can now go to their nearest spaza shop and get physical data ­bundles instead of the virtual data ­alternative.

Bodibe says that customer demands have evolved radically from the time cellphones first made an appearance.

According to her, although only 11% of customers know of and exploit the cellphone’s full ­potential, an increasing number of ­users want the most advanced phones available on the market.

“They want the great things ­cellphones are able to offer even when they cannot necessarily afford them. That is why we are constantly working with manufacturers to ensure we have ­low-cost devices,” she says.

With government’s focus on job ­creation and developing small- and ­medium-sized enterprises, an ­increased level of access to digital ­platforms means that businesspeople can access cutting-edge information. And this without having to worry about first spending hundreds of thousands of rands setting up servers.

Organisations with low staff numbers can, through share-link Wi-Fi ­routers (devices that allow wireless ­internet connectivity to laptop or desktop computers), connect up to five people in an office without having to rely on a server, thus saving the organisations potentially thousands of rands.

The same applies to families where, instead of queuing one at a time to use the family computer and complaining that others are using all the data, everyone with a computer can get on with their business at the same time.

“We have learnt that we just can’t sell SIM cards. We sell solutions and services. That is what has endeared us to our customers.

“Ours is not a business case that will be realised today but in the future,” says Bodibe.

With critics slamming South Africa’s telephony costs as among the highest in the world and the number of dropped calls still relatively high, the great things that organisations like Bodibe’s are doing will continue to be blighted and attract the attention of state ­regulators.

“We have been able to understand the regulator’s focus. Government does not come with a stick and say do this. They come having identified a concern and typically it will take two to three years for an agreement to be reached.”

She points to the agreement on cost reduction and dropped-call rates as ­examples of government and the ­industry being able to find each other without the state having to resort to wielding the stick.

With all the hi-tech gadgets ­literally at their fingertips, Bodibe reckons that the real power and possibilities lie with ordinary clients.

She says: “We have learnt from this that we are not really in charge, the customer is. We did not create ­Facebook or MXit. The customers identified a gap and all we have done is enable them to access it.

“The ­internet is ubiquitous and the biggest peril would be to ignore it.”

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