Pieces of a Dream

Once upon a time (2000), we had fewer than 400,000 telephone lines in Nigeria…

By 2009, Nigeria had an estimated 65,000,000 lines, most of them mobile (wireless). Communication is now a lot easier than it was before, and one rather good side-effect of this growth is that much more people now have access to the Internet.

While this on the whole is a positive thing, one of the big problems of the pre-GSM era persists. The problem of the unreachable corporation. Back in the day, it was necessary to sympathise with any telephone line owner who was unlucky enough to have any issues with their phone line. The ensuing process, from filing a complaint to getting the issue resolved was one of those nice little things which one could conveniently wish on his worst enemy with a keen sense of self-satisfaction if his wish was eventually granted.

Today, we have three big telecommunications companies (ignoring the relatively smaller players), and a regulatory body, the Nigerian Communications Commission. In the past, this NCC was often referred to as an example of a purposeful and well-run Nigerian establishment. It’s leader was an icon, much like the famed Dora of NAFDAC. This is not to say that telecommunication was rosy in the early days of GSM, its more like the regulator was actually visibly working to keep things moving as they were meant to.

A series of bad experiences in recent times have led me to wonder what has changed over the last one year. Much has. GPRS is now ever more affordable, and less restricted than it was, coverage has improved so much so that packet data services can be assumed to be available wherever there is GSM coverage for any network of your choice. I remember lamenting on the hitherto high costs of this service. I guess my prayers got answered. There is a layer of thorns behind this cloud though.

Whenever I am in need of internet access, my phone is the easiest device to run to. Yes, there usually is GPRS, and the cost is a lot lower now than it was at this same period last year, and most networks even have a subscription plan to help you save even more. I’ll avoid complaining about their annoyingly low data transfer caps for now.

At the fore-front of the mobile internet bandwagon is MTN-Nigeria. They seem to have deployed the most capable network of all the other networks (I have experienced speeds of up to 3.5mbps while using MTN), and have coverage in more areas than their competition. They also have the most accessible, albeit klunky subscription platform which is based on SMS and pay-as-you-go recharge vouchers.

There are many issues with MTN’s internet access platform. First of all, their whatSMS processing machine is often unable to respond to subscriber’s requests, causing disconcerting delays when you urgently need to grab something off the internet. If you have ever queried for your current bandwidth utilization in order to decide whether or not to continue browsing, and failed to get a response within the hour, then you understand me.

Next, their metering platform is not fine-grained enough. It measures bandwidth in rather large units–megabytes. The net effect of this is that you are either bound to exceed your cap, and therefore get billed the comparatively high cost for any additional transfers that occur, or you always stop using the service before your cap is exceeded, loosing a bit of bandwidth that is rightfully yours in the process. I lost a few hundred Naira in this manner on several occasions.

Finally, if the service is poor, there is absolutely nothing that you as a paying client can do about it. There is no avenue to make a complaint, and there certainly isn’t any obvious re-compensation process. My erstwhile neighbour made a subscription which he was unable to utilize, and was unable to get a refund, despite visiting MTN’s corporate headquarters to file a complaint. As I write this article, I have a subscription which I have been unable to utilize since activation, and I can’t find who to complain to.

After scratching a good amount of hair off my head, I finally arrived at the conclusion that regardless of your subscription status, you must have about ₦1 on your phone before you can surf the internet using MTN.

In such a sub-optimal situation, and since there are alternatives, the best thing to do is to look at the others, right? I wish it was this straightforward. In my case, the only real alternative is Glo Mobile, since no other option is easily accessible across the parts of Nigeria I frequent.

To be continued.

Random quote: Never test for an error condition you don’t know how to handle. — Steinbach

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