Friday, November 19, 2010

3G in the 3rd world

Doing business in Zambia is getting easier and easier as competition is quickly opening things up.  Companies that once had monopolies are scrambling to adapt (or are slowly going under).  Just in the last 3 months the pain of buying more 'talk time' is getting less and less b/c we're getting much more for our money.  Additionally there are special promotions (calling the UK for 50% off, for example) that are automatic (opt out vs. opt in as they formerly were).  Now we have three providers -- all of whom have been bought and sold by bigger and bigger companies and have shifted from government to private commercial operations.  The company I use, for example has changed from Cell-Tell to Zain to Orange and now it's Bharti Airtel (in India) but for the time-being is called Zain-Zambia.

For us 'mericans the whole system of make cell phone calls here is kind of refreshing.  The hassle of getting a phone in Seattle this summer that we could use during the 6 weeks we were there was kind of shocking, actually.  When we came here back in 2008 we went to a cell phone retailer, bought a cheap Nokia phone (which is basic and irritating to use, but is still working and has stood up to being dropped, run over, plopped in the pool.....); it came with sim card and pre-loaded with 30,000 worth of talk time. All this for 80,000--about $16.

To get a 'go phone' in Seattle this past summer we had to shell out about $150 for a sim card and a month of talk/text and another $60 to 'top up' for the remaining 2 weeks that we needed the phones.  We already have 'unlocked' phones b/c I'm pretty sure that the US is the last place on the planet where your phone is tied to your phone company.  (Does this make a lick of sense?)  Otherwise we would have had to buy the "Go Phone" on top of the calling plan.

Because of a mix-up when I first signed up for my US go-phone, I blew through my 'time' after only 5 days.  Thankfully they honored the original contract and I got the original 'plan' that I signed up for (unlimited talk/text for $60 for the month) restored at no cost but with 40 minutes on the phone to India trying to sort things out.  These sim cards expire if you don't continue to sign up month after month so we'll have to buy new sim cards and sign up for a new plan when we come back.  It may be cheaper/easier to buy a new phone and sim cards in London -- they sell them from vending machines at the airport.

This thing of making a 2 year commitment to a phone and plan as is standard in the US really seems absurd.  How can you anticipate what you may need, how you will use your phone and how you may use new technology?  I sure can't.

At any rate, making a call here is pretty straight forward.  Buy a phone you like.  Buy a sim card for the company you want to use. (or buy lots of phones and a sim for every company you want.)  Sign up for a post-paid plan or pre-paid plan (without signing your life away or having to give personal information -- I was shocked at how much of my personal 'data' I had to give up to get my little 'go phone.'  For pre-paid, which is what I have I have to buy little scratch cards for 5,000 to 50,000 kwacha ($1 to $10) and to get more time, I just scratch the code and call *958* and punch in the code.  There are vendors on every corner and you only need to nod your head and roll down your window to buy more time (or just make eye contact or look like you might be reaching for your pocketbook, these guys don't miss a thing).  If there is no one nearby you can pull over and just ask if there is anyone and they will come running in no time.

I spoke with our corner-vendor today - he gets 5% of sales.  If I buy 50,000, he gets 2,500.  Some quick calculations tell me that to make the same amount that a well-paid gardener makes he has to sell about 400,000 every day.  This is a lot.  He also sells the newspaper/s and the corner where he works is a hotbed of entrepreneur activity.  There is a group of men that do everything from plumbing to selling veggies, fixing flats, doing bike repairs, etc.  There is a lot of checker-playing going on as well, it's a very social corner and maybe is a bit different in character from the other corner....the one close to the bar.

My plan has been shifted to new, reduced-tariff plans automatically for me and I can sign up for internet on my phone as well but have to go into the store to do it so have not bothered.  I'm connected enough to the computer, I'm not sure I'm ready to be even more tied to the thing.  My phone company is one of the most expensive but the coverage is great, especially considering where we live and where we travel.  By using a bigger company, too, we have the added benefit of the new lifting of restrictions on country-to-country calls and opening of borders and 'roaming' charges.  TJ has a dual sim-card phone so he can keep his zambia number and also use a local phone number sim card (and get local rates).

With my One Time Takamo plan,  I think I pay 8 kwacha per second /480 per minute (10 cents) for off-peak and 13 for peak time (16 cents). My internet, if I signed up for it would add on 70,000 a month (pre-paid, $15)

We pre-pay for our electricity now, too, but this is not so interesting, eh?  I have to go to the little office down the street, turn off by the Carnival lodge and travel down a bumpy dirt road to the office with no sign.  The office is closed a lot and we have to plan ahead a bit but somehow, the system works. Occasionally we run out of units and are without power until we can top up.  I think for our electricity (which also has greatly improved -- we used to have outages 4-7pm a few nights a week but now it's really infrequent that our power is inexplicably out). costs about $150 a month.

The next thing we are waiting to improve is our internet access.  Zambia remains one of the most expensive countries in the world to have internet access.

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