Ferial Haffajee: The amazing data maze

In six months, 42 gigs of my data expired. Forty-two!

I must admit that trying to understand data expiry practice and rules make me giddy. So, I thought to start from where I know: my own pocket and my own account.

Vodacom was helpful enough to help me do so, and I found that in six months last year, I lost 11.98 gigs on one phone and 29 gigs on the other, due to South African data expiry practices by the big telecommunications companies. 

It’s a lot of money. Because pricing is so complex, I can’t determine an exact figure, but issa lot, as they say on Twitter.

How does this compare with other users?

"While there was nothing untoward in terms of the bundles being forfeited, in this instance there is a considerably higher proportion of data that has expired compared with what the vast majority of our customers might experience," said a Vodacom spokesperson. 

Tsjoe! That’s a relief. As I explained in this column, at one point my data disappeared in that period, and I kept buying more.  Many people who read that column said they experienced the disappearing data phenomenon, but Vodacom said I was imagining things, although the back-office clerk said it had disappeared due to a "syncing" problem.

The syncing problem gave my bank balance a sinking feeling. For fairness' sake, here’s Vodacom’s explanation.

"Our investigation shows that all of the customer’s data is accurately accounted for, but that in most months, unused data was expiring on both of the customer’s cellphone numbers each month. This may well have created an impression that data was 'disappearing'."

I got too many notes from readers telling me about their disappearing data to not believe there’s a wider problem, though.  

I’m not a millennial born into the digital world, but neither am I a Luddite. I bank, shop and stream online. My journalism is online. I use good apps (applications) all the time. So, with this experience, why am I still losing so much data?

My experience is that topping up or buying packages is far too complex for an ordinary person with a busy life. I don’t have time to compare data packages or sim-swop across phones or do a daily check of the special on Vodacom’s Just4U service. 

It takes too long; the language of the packages on offer changes all the time and so does their structure. When I’m on a deadline and covering an important story like the Zondo commission of inquiry, I don’t have time to click around to look for the cheapest package with the longest expiry period. I press "buy", and then, I guess, promptly lose the data because I didn’t read through the expiry fine-print.

This makes it difficult for consumers. The Vodacom spokesperson recommended that I buy a recurring 5G bundle instead of the 2G I am currently on. That’s helpful.

But why hadn’t anybody at the company ever suggested so until I put in a media query? The touted fourth industrial revolution means that business is increasingly driven by sophisticated algorithms which can give companies like Vodacom great tools to help their customers. 

I asked Vodacom why they didn’t pick up my problem and offer a solution given that they had access to the information – I suppose this is the equivalent of asking a Turkey why they didn’t vote for more Christmases, but still, I live in hope of a more customer-focused world.

This is what Vodacom told me. 

"We ensure that we clearly communicate expiry dates/times to customers in the form of SMSs, USSD selections and the MyVodacomApp. Our call centre agents and front-facing staff are trained to recommend data bundle and voice packages to meet each customer’s changing needs." 

I'd be grateful to hear your data stories. If you're on Twitter, please find me at @ferialhaffajee on Twitter or email me on editor@fin24.com.

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