I Am Ruler Supreme

This is a composition about email. A story, which quite rapidly degenerates into a rant about the practices of one big internet company. This time, the culprit is not Nigerian. Grab a cup of whatever beverage you are fond of, and enjoy.

So, a couple of phone calls around 8am woke me up from my slumber. One of the few privileges of being a school teacher in a predominantly Muslim state is that you can wake up late on a Monday like today, with Sallah still fresh on everyone’s mind.

As I got about my morning mishmash of singing random bits of different songs, cooking noodles, and scattering my clean clothes all over my bed in search of what to wear for that day, I was contemplating how to structure my trip to town for maximum efficiency. I needed to get some things done on the Internet, making a few coins in the process, and marching a few more steps forward on an important life project of mine.

In a squeaky-clean, bleached, white, short-sleeved shirt, grey trousers (with grey stockings visible from under the legs) and my favourite brown moccasins, I set off for Katsina town at about 9:15am. I spent three rather short hours in an Internet café which was fast enough to download all my emails, download all my RSS feeds and sadly, not much else.

It’s 1:30pm. What to do next? Well, what’s the rush in going back to the village when you can roam about town almost with no particular aim, and just be happy? He he. I even ran into someone I met way back in March, at NYSC Orientation camp. Did I say my roaming about was aimless? Well, I visited my bank, and a few friends, including the one I ran into at the bank.

All is well that ends well, they say. I made my way back to my village by 6:20pm, to avoid the early and hazy darkness that makes night-travel in a box moving at almost 2km a minute on a narrow, windy road dangerous at this time of the year. At least I’ve got my email and RSS feeds to go through, and thankfully, my school now runs their generator for 2 hours every week-night. I’ll have ample juice to power my laptop long enough to read everything of interest. Put a pin here.

Fast forward to 940pm. I’m done reading my RSS feeds. Now for the email. I read my inbox while in town so that I could respond to any thing that needed my urgent response while I was online. Dive into my Mailing Lists folder. Hmmm, there are lots of subjects where I only see "[ATE-u-Tiv] [Tivnetinc/Ate-U-Tiv/KAO…".

That is utterly useless characters making up the entire preview of the subject, and thus making it quite difficult to decide whether or not to read the email at all. Let me explain. My email program has three columns. The first column lists "folders". This is  where you find stuff like "inbox", "sent" etc. It is where my email is sorted. The second column displays a long list of all the emails in any selected folder. At this moment, "ATE" is the active folder, and all the emails emanating from the "ATE-u-Tiv" Mailing list are listed in the second column.

The second column makes it easy to quickly tell who any particular message is from, and what the subject is. Since the column is small, it only displays the person’s name, message date, and about 40 characters of the subject line, plus an icon to mark the message as read/unread/new.

The last column displays whatever message you have selected from the second column, in full. It is the biggest one of the three columns. Quite a nice way to read email I must add. I wonder why this particular person keeps sending emails where the first forty-something characters of the subject are totally irrelevant to the subject of the message. An annoyance that etiquette won’t allow me to complain about. Or did it? He he. I make a note in my note-taking application to think about a solution to this problem.

That is just a minor annoyance that can be borne silently by me. The next problem I run into isn’t quite so.

I skim many emails in this folder and eventually come across one where the author talks about a "Nigerian Demographic Health Survey". The author is kind enough to attach a PDF containing this survey. Mwa! Such a kind and considerate person. He even thought it wise to include the report in the email to make it easier for interested people to read it. This kind of email suits my email consumption style so perfectly. My email client would have retrieved the email, including the attachment while I was online, and now, all I have to do to access that attachment is to open it. No Internet required.

Believe it or not, Email is older than the World Wide Web. Most people think that the world wide web is the internet, but honestly, the world wide web is just one fraction of it. You see, before we had the web, we had email, and most people consumed email by having a computer program access their mail server, and retrieve all the unretrieved emails from their account storing them on their local machine for later perusal and any subsequent actions. The web just added a simple and nearly universal front-end to email. Hence, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, http://mail.yahoo.com is actually just one way to consume email. Of course, Yahoo makes that the only way to consume mail if Yahoo happens to be your mail service provider, and they charge you money if you wish to consume it any other way.

I consume my email "the other way". You now know why I don’t use Yahoo for my email. In fact, I consume my email in any form that is convenient at the time. When my phone happens to be the only computer I have handy, I consume email via a more restricted, but nearly equally functional interface on the phone. When with my computer, I use the "retrieve and consume later model", when on a public computer, I use the "web mail". Yahoo does not make it easy for me  to consume my email in all the various forms through which I prefer to.

So I don’t like Yahoo Mail. Why should you care? Ideally, you shouldn’t. Which is why I have not embarked on any massive campaign to get people to stop using Yahoo mail. Which is why I just carry on, secure in my conviction that Yahoo Mail does not meet my needs, and so I use something else that (nearly) does so. Since I am such a nice guy, I usually also feel sorry for people who don’t realize that their email experience could be much more suited to their needs, and who thus, are stuck inside a world of Yahoo. But I painstakingly avoid trying to tell them to switch when they haven’t come to me asking me for help in accomplishing something which Yahoo Mail doesn’t make easy. It is your pain, and fortunately for you, your ignorance is your bliss. I tell my worrisome self, and thus, sleep peacefully at night.

Why then am I going on rambling about Yahoo Mail? You see, this extremely likeable author who sent this health survey happens to be a Yahoo Mail user, and by all the powers, above and beyond, vested in Yahoo Inc., Yahoo has decided to break away with the age-old and time-tested convention of "attaching" attached files to an email in such a way that any retrieving program also retrieves the attachment.

Yahoo! Mail (yes, the exclamation mark is so apt) has unilaterally decided to start stripping emails of all attachments. Storing them instead on its mind-boggling expanse of servers, and supplying a simple link instead, inside of the email, in place of the attachment, to a place where viewers can "download" or "view" the attachment in their web browser! They even shamelessly make sure to indicate that there is an attachment in the email by adding some more rubbish characters "[X Attachments]" to the subject of the message. It looks like they recognise how counter-intuitive this practice is, and yet they persist.

What are the practical implications of this?

  1. I cannot access the famed attachment, or any other attachment sent by a Yahoo Mail user unless I happen to be online.
  2. My email consumption style: download, store, consume later is now broken for all Yahoo Mail with attachments.
  3. I shall now, and until this practice ceases, more actively encourage people I interact with to stop using Yahoo Mail.

My predicament, you say?

  1. Your attachments are now, a lot less private than before. They are available on the Internet, and the only thing stopping someone else from seeing them right now, is that they don’t yet have the link to the files. Unless of course, as they probably would have, they implemented some form of security based on embedding some unique code in the URL (file address), and depending on its secrecy thereafter. I wonder whether they ever delete the files.
  2. It is my fervent prayer that one day, you shall wish to read your email in "outlook" and come to face the same disappointment I now face. That is, you shall grow up, and grow more annoyed with simple, annoying displays of veto power such as this.

If you have managed to read up to this point, please, do the wise thing. Get yourself a better email account. Visit (in order of decreasing preference) www.gmail.com , www.ovi.com or even www.hotmail.com and save civilization. I hereby volunteer to teach you how to consume your email in the various ways I have outlined in this narrative.

Fanen Ahua -my pic-
Random Quote:
Finagle’s Eighth Law: If an experiment works, something has gone wrong.

Finagle’s Ninth Law: No matter what results are expected, someone is always willing to fake it.

Finagle’s Tenth Law: No matter what the result someone is always eager to misinterpret it.

Finagle’s Eleventh Law: No matter what occurs, someone believes it happened according to his pet theory.

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Hands Held High

This is a long article, but a hopefully entertaining one.

You see, previously, I wrote an article: "We Have the Infrastructure for Ubiquitous Internet Access"
( http://traversingmind.blogspot.com/2008/05/we-have-infrastructure-for-ubuquitous.html ). Not long after that article hit the tubes (read Internet), I observed that MTN had started selling internet access plans for as low as ₦2,500 per month. I do not mean to imply here that my article had a causal relationship with this epoch, but hey, I’m a dreamer!

The catch for MTN’s subscription package was that for ₦2,500, you’d only have internet access between the hours of 10pm and 5am every thirty days. Furthermore, your data transfer was capped at 3GB. If you wished to have internet access all day, then the price quadrupled to ₦10,000 for the same, in this scenario, quite lowly 3GB cap.

It took nearly a year for Glo, MTN’s next biggest competitor to start offering a similar service. Glo Mobile’s offering seems to be more fine-grained, providing a lot more options to choose from, and hopefully one for every budget.

Despite, and because of my recent rift with Glo’s billing department over post-paid internet services ( http://traversingmind.blogspot.com/2009/06/costly-side-of-bed.html ), I was excited to hear this. I have said it before, and I say it everytime I get the opportunity: Glo maintains a much more stable and reliable network, even though MTN has a faster network on aggregate. For this reason alone, I prefer them. Stability matters more than speed when you find yourself doing anything other than casually visiting web pages in a web browser.

Now, I am currently in a small village (town) called Mani in Katsina state, so this bit of good news in the internet access front is not of much use to me, but its still something to be happy for. I have been wondering why all the advertisements I have seen of glo’s pre-paid internet access service do not make any mention of data caps though. Could it be that some important person at Glo Mobile had a revelation, and awoke thence, declaring bandwidth caps to be devoid of benefit, and thenceforth, marooned from the land of the Glo?

In theory, Nigeria’s bandwidth constraints, which have hitherto been largely responsible for the high cost of internet access in Nigeria are collapsing further into the hypothetical bit bucket, at the hands of the optical fibre. Sat3, Nitel’s prima donna is operational, and providing uncapped bandwidth to any service provider willing to pay and well-placed enough to find use for it. Glo’s over 600 gigabit-per-second fibre-optic cable has also touched down in Lagos (Glo 1), and although no one I know knows whether the first rays of light have traversed it yet, everyone is sure that things are only getting better. There is even a third company working hard and fast to plug Nigeria with its third discrete under-sea fibre-optic cable (Main One, at 1.92 Terabits per second). The future looks quite gloomy for VSAT vendors.

On the other hand, it is clear that with wireless communications, you can rarely eat your cake and have it. In the sense that using wireless data services can degrade network performance for voice callers who as of this moment, are still the mainstay of Nigerian telecoms. Various packet data access technologies mitigate this effect in various ways, much so that I strongly believe that these caps are arbitrary, and not really imposed for the sake of maintaining network quality of service.

Anyway, perhaps this sea change at Glo Mobile with respect to bandwidth caps may not merely be coincidence, but a deliberate move to capitalize on the impending glut of blazing-fast, uncapped, luminant bandwidth. Perhaps they didn’t leave out information about caps on purpose, caps are absent… so my daydreams continued.

No use speculating when customer care is just one call away. Said I, as I finally came to. It took an uncountable number of attempts for my call to finally get through to customer care, and in the waiting time, my fickle mind wandered back into the good old days when calling customer care cost a flat ₦20. At least then your call got connected on the first or second attempt. I was on hold for about ten minutes and finally spoke with a Janet (not real name). I asked about the pre-paid internet access plans, and the lady went into auto-pilot. I had anticipated a barrage of information, so I had pen and paper handy.

"Always Maxi, ₦10,000 per month, 3GB ‘fair usage’ … blah blah blah… ‘3GB fair usage’… I stopped listening at some point, but let her finish talking. Thanked her for the information, received the customarily polite ‘have a nice day’ and hung up."

Yes. The Sacred Three was unfazed. Just Like MTN, Glo had magically resolved that 3GB was a good number to peg data transfer caps at. Hmmm… come to think of it, mobile internet became a worthwhile venture in terms of speed with the advent of "3G". There’s this thing called "triple play" even, making its rounds in the more advanced countries of the world. It is a package of "TV, Telephone and Internet" all in one singly priced bundle.

There is even a third network in Nigeria, a young, quite competitive and diligent network at that, going by the quality of their network, the fact that they have jumped straight ahead of the speed curve, deploying EDGE for their mobile data service while the incumbents are still serving GPRS mixed with a few select spots of 3G. I am referring to Etisalat. They also have an internet access package, "Easynet", albeit not as easily accessible as MTN, and now Glo. Etisalat is the third Nigerian GSM company selling internet access to cap its flagship offering at 3GB per month.

Why is this 3GB cap so common? Is it an inherent limitation in the nature of the way Internet access is spreading in Nigeria? There are three major telecom companies in Nigeria that provide uncapped internet access that I know of. Visafone, Starcomms and Multilinks-Telkom. If other relatively big players are not doing it, why then, are the biggest of them doing it? This has to be an issue for another day.

The days went by, and this topic faded away into my subconscious until one lovely Thursday, the opportunity presented itself to me to test out Glo’s pre-paid Internet access. I was in Katsina town, and had a beefy ₦900 worth of credit in my phone. It would cost me ₦500 to subscribe to the daily plan (with a 50MB cap) which should enable me check my email, read my RSS feeds and do a bit of chatting with my friends.

The procedure for subscription is you send "activate" to 127, and you’re replied with what codes to send for which particular plan you wish to subscribe to. I sent "10" for the daily plan, ₦500 was deducted from my credit, and I received a confirmation text shortly after, welcoming me to the daily Internet plan! Woo-hoo. 50MB is not much use on the phone, even on a capable phone like mine, so I pulled out my USB cable and tethered the phone to my laptop. Moments later, my email was tickling in at 4kBps and I was happily pecking away at my keyboard, chatting with an old schoolmate of mine.

Ten minutes later, I was disconnected from the network. My first reflex was to check how much I had left on my phone. *124#… "Main account: ₦0.18 …". I have a dark face you see, so it doesn’t noticeably turn pale, but errr… I was hysterical. My next reflex was to dial 121, and I kept dialing it, murmuring bits of different songs to myself while I waited for the (some words edited out) call to connect. It eventually did, and 10 minutes later, I was talking to a lady, who In retrospect, I should have been very, very rude to. I calmly, and carefully explained my situation to her. I even had to teach her how the system was supposed to work. It seems like a requirement for you to work in customer care is "know absolutely nothing about computers and technology". She put me on hold, and I am sure she went and double-checked my tutorial with an engineer, then she came back online, apologized for my suffering, and told me to hang up, and call "444".

I searched my brain in vain, trying to establish whether or not 444 was a valid glo customer care number, but I had to trust the customer care lady, didn’t I? Besides, it never occurred to me that she would try to get rid of me with such a boldfaced lie. I hung up, dialled 444, and was told that it was "non-existent".

I can assure you at this point, that I used quite a prodigious number of adjectives on this lady and calmed my nerves with a rather demeaning explanation of her curious, perplexing, and foolhardy act. Why didn’t she have the guts to tell me to hang up, and go get a life? Maybe she was making-up her face as I called, since her shift was almost over (it was around 4pm) and she wanted to go out into the real world and play the part of "beautiful, well-paid, telecom company employee, complete with a really expensive phone and a rich boyfriend" and couldn’t care less about some idiot whining about losing some ₦900. Heck, why not just send him a recharge card to cover his losses? LOL, I am untouchable, I don’t need to make him feel good. Let me just ask him to dial this non-existent number so he can be off my case. I have more important things to do with my time.

Well, it worked. I was at peace with myself, and she was probably out there living "The Life" as well. I called customer care again, and this time, I spent nearly an hour on the phone. First, the new lady tried to tell me I had exhausted my 50MB cap. Ha ha. I’ve been online for 10 minutes, Lady, at 4kBps. And my phone keeps records. Please Hold. No problem. 35 minutes pass by. Were you using phone or computer? Does it make a difference? Yes it does. If you used PC, it would have worked. If you put your SIM in a modem and put it in a PC now, it would work.

I felt an indescribable urge to hurl really lucid insults at this lady, but chose instead to not waste my beautiful insults on a lowly customer care girl, who knew little about this stuff, was well-paid enough to wonder why I was making such a fuss about ₦900 bucks, and couldn’t (wouldn’t) do much about my situation except apologise anyway.

I hung up before my rage could make me smash my phone against the blank, cream-coloured wall I was staring at.

Well, I do have NCC as a last resort, complaint receiver, right? Ha! Don’t make me search my puzzled mind for more adjectives. In fact, I feel so strongly now, that these adjectives in my mind are turning into "verbs", right in my face. Unfortunately, when I think long and hard about the "verbs", they all seem to eventually turn into yet another adjective called "activism". How in this crazy country does that achieve results?

The above paragraph means that I did email NCC with my complaint, and have received no response since.

At this point, a conspiracy theory is brewing in my head. Maybe these Glo guys do these things on purpose in order to increase their profit margins. Hmmm. I always take conspiracy theories with a rather huge serving of salt, so why should I be making them up? I dismiss that thought from my mind, and conclude that it is probably just faulty Quality Assurance testing that causes them to roll out services that have flaws in them. I do live in my own perfect little world. Unfortunately, the following Monday (17 November 2009), my brother sent me a text, complaining how Glo just sent him a bill of ₦23,349.66 + ₦9,569 (Internet bill plus monthly charge) + ₦12,667 for calls to glo-gsm.

You see, he, under my advice, walked into a Glo Office, asked to buy a Modem, and subscribe to a product called "GLeisure", which gives you internet access from 8pm to 8am every weekday, and all days during weekends (of course, with a 3GB cap). It costs ₦5,000 per month, and that is what he believed they gave him. One month later, He is sent a bill of ₦45,000. Note that the SIM he was given is incapable of making voice calls. Maybe I am not so daft after all. Wait, is that a word?

Fanen Ahua -my pic-
Random Quote:
Most burning issues generate far more heat than light.

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