Feeling ripped off about airtime? You probably are

Independent solutions consultant Jo-Anne Stolpdid some research on service providers by downloading apps, testing them independently, and checking that against what their websites said. She is a Vodacom and MTN prepaid customer, as well as a client of FNB and Capitec.

THERE are quite a few clever “marketing” tactics being used to overprice every call and expire as many megabytes as possible. So if you’re feeling ripped off, you probably are.

I might be imagining it, but downloads seem to go way faster using out-of-bundle data. I’ve just seen R60 disappear in four seconds. As a test, I downloaded an app (that did not specify how big it was) out of bundle. I hit “cancel” at 1.3MB, but 30MB were used up anyway, without the app being installed.

Let’s for the moment ignore the insanity of expiring data. Legally, there is still a loophole or two that must be challenged for that blatant rip-off to stop. But here’s a couple of things you may not know that can substantially decrease airtime spend.

Default price plans are usually not the best deal

If you’re on one of these, consider changing:

  • Vodacom for Less (R2.60 per minute billed per MINUTE, R2.89 to other networks).
  • MTN Call Per Second (No longer available to change to, but just check to be sure. Between R2.79 and R1.19 per minute).
  • Any contract where airtime is billed per minute (most contracts are either R1.50 or R1.80 per minute, whether billed per second or per minute).

On Vodacom, the default price plan used to be “Vodacom for Less”. This billed you R2.60 per minute or part thereof. So with your brand new prepaid sim, if you phoned and said only “I’m at the gate”, it cost you R2.60. Reassuringly, they told you that you’d just saved some percentage of the call, sometimes 0%, usually 20% to 50%.

I know of one person who once “saved” 100%. At 50%, that’s R1.30 to say four words. Change to Anytime Per Second (R1.20pm billed per second) immediately if you’re on this plan by dialling *111# and selecting Services, then Free Change.

Nowadays, the Vodacom default seems to be “Power Bonus” which has promo offers like paying R5 for 60 minutes’ worth of Vodacom-to-Vodacom calls. The call rate is R1.50pm billed per second, which is okay, and the out-of-bundle data charge is R1.50 instead of R2.00 per MB. MTN’s default, MTN Base, is the same.

MTN’s previous default price plan was Pay Per Second, which is way better, since it’s 79c per minute billed per second, and 99c per MB. If you’re on it, stay there. Dial *141*4# to see your price plan and which others are available. If you’re lucky, you might not be told “The system is temporarily unavailable. Please try again in 15 minutes” for days on end.

So MTN’s default almost doubled last year, while Vodacom’s halved, and they end up the same. Collusion, anyone?

Basically, if you didn’t know you could change your prepaid price plan, you’re probably being screwed by Vodacom, but not by MTN until quite recently.

If you’re on a price plan with freebies, you’re probably losing too

  • MTN Muziq (R2.50 per minute, probably billed per MINUTE because it’s not specified).
  • MTN Zone Per Second (R2.50 per minute billed per second).
  • Vodacom Daily Free Calls (R1.20 per minute billed per MINUTE).

If your price plan is Vodacom 79c or MTN Pay Per Second, DON’T change because these are no longer available. If you’re covered by Cell-C or Telkom at home and at work and everywhere you hang out often, it’s worthwhile checking them out.

However, be very careful about the brazillions of gigs that Telkom offers you, because most of them are for use in Wi-Fi hot spots that are few and far between outside metros. Also, only the teeniest bit of your mobile data can be used on other networks, the bulk can only be used when Telkom isn’t connecting via MTN’s towers, which it does when there is no Telkom coverage. So you get to the dreaded out-of-bundle way earlier than the call centre person convinced you would.

Using your network’s app

Although they all don’t use data to connect to themselves, many of the links and promotions go to your browser or other apps that do. To download them, you’ll use 30MB for Vodacom, 8MB for MTN, 5MB for Cell C, or 35MB for Telkom. And they want to be updated.

It’s hard to be sure whether they spy on you unless you’ve told your phone to notify you, but all of them require permission to read your location, your contacts, read and change your SD card, and check your Wi-Fi/network connections. These things make sense for them to function, but others do not.

MTN wants permission to make calls and multi-party calls, modify your calendar and prevent the phone from sleeping. Cell-C wants permission to modify your contacts. Telkom wants to read your device’s app history and data logs and battery statistics.

Installing your bank’s app

Capitec is 4MB, last updated in November 2016, and doesn’t want any worrisome permissions. It doesn’t use your data if you’re on Vodacom, MTN or Cell C.

FNB app is 63MB. It tries to get hold of my contacts list every time I open it. It also wants access to Bluetooth, including broadcasting, wants to make calls, and hijack microphone and camera. Its last update was in April 2017, so it’ll probably want to update every two months or so. It no longer uses your data.

Nedbank is only 3MB and was last updated in November 2016. It doesn’t require any permissions that are odd, but they don’t confirm whether the app uses data. They do advertise that on their budget account option you don’t have to pay for data.

Absa is 32MB and last updated January 2017. It doesn’t use your data, but wants access to make calls, initiate multi-party calls, use camera, modify contacts, read contacts, and get location.

Standard Bank is 14MB, updated April 2017, and specifically states in the Ts & Cs that it uses your data. Creepy permissions required include reading contacts, location, create accounts and set passwords, and “send sticky broadcast”(?).

Updating your favourite Apps

Check your usage under “Settings” on your smartphone. Figure out how your device allows you to block further data usage after a set limit. Those people who sold you your device had other motives - saving you money is the very last.

In Google Play Store, you can change turn of “AutoUpdate Apps” under settings. You’ll still have to check apps that are already installed, the somewhat hidden way of doing this is by pressing on the three-dot menu and unticking the “AutoUpdate” box.

Currently, on my android 4.4 device, Google Play Store wants to update 85MB of apps that work fine and a further 117MB on apps that I don’t use but can’t disable. Facebook is 52MB installed and wants to run a 49MB update. YouTube is 36MB installed and wants to update 15MB.

Twitter is 119MB installed, WhatsApp 54MB. I update those fairly regularly because it does seem that they improve.

Since you install these yourself, you use approximately the “installed size” worth of data to get them. WhatsApp wants to update at least every month, and Twitter two to three times a month. Facebook is probably as bad as Twitter; I’ve just refused to update it since last September.

And get this, when you install an app, Play Store generally does not warn you what its size is. You have to scroll all the way to the bottom to check and it often says “Varies according to device”.

Updating your device software

Your device was handed to you with all apps set to auto-update, and most to auto-open, even if you’ve never used them. All their permissions are granted. So Google Maps is open and using data to see where you are. Email software is trying to connect to download your email. Any entertainment or game apps may be checking for your location. All of them are constantly checking whether there is an update available. Your browser is fetching stuff so that it can try to predict what you want if you ever actually “open” it on purpose.

But your device…

Your device’s manufacturer may or may not improve its operating software over time. The big brands roll out better versions of Android or Windows or iPhone with great fanfare every so often, but even the little guys set your phone to check for updates even if they have no intention of ever upgrading your software.

Now remember, these updates tend to be pretty much a full new version of all operating software already on your phone. So it’s very seldom less than half a gig. And if your data runs out, it’ll use airtime at R2.00 per MB. When your airtime runs out, it’ll cancel the update and throw away everything it has already downloaded. So when you buy more data, you start over.

A friend’s Huawei device needed an update of 1.3 GB. She bought 1GB three times, and still no completed update.

So what on earth do I do?

Immediately disable device updates without permission. If your device wants an update, google first to check how big it is and wait till you have enough data or are in Wi-Fi.

Also immediately disable auto-update for apps you don’t use. Check your “Open at Startup” and disable all of those. I let WhatsApp start up automatically since we have community SOS groups.

Change your prepaid price plan if you’re on one of the doozies and you don’t use its “freebies”. If you’re lucky enough to live in Telkom or Cell C’s footprint, Telkom’s SIM Sonke and Cell C’s 66c plans look reasonable. I can’t test them because I don’t have coverage.

I eventually bought a multi-sim phone so that my voice SIM never uses data and my data SIM never receives airtime. I buy bundles straight from Capitec. This way I don’t get hit with ridiculous out-of-bundle rates. It also allows me to use whichever network has the best offer at the time.

I use my talking points for emergency data, and I use the USSD functionality to check for bonuses or special offers when I need to do something specific, such as a data-heavy meeting or remembering to call the folks.

I also buy in one bundle as much data as I am likely to use up in 30 days; buying 20GB at a time brings the per-gig price down to R50 on Vodacom and R62.50 on MTN.

Cell C has an option for 100GB for 365 days at R1 499 (R15/GB) or 200GB for R1 999 (R10/GB).

The previous two sentences make my blood boil. How is it ethical to charge R2 048.00 per GB on out-of-bundle when Cell C can sell 200 times as much for R49 less?

*Jo-Anne Stolp is an independent solutions consultant. She believes opaque pricing by banks and mobile providers is disproportionately penalising poor consumers, and that “the way it’s always been done” is not an adequate response.

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