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Operators vindicated?

SA's three largest cellular operators all meet ICASA's minimum call quality standards, despite complaints and surveys to the contrary.

SA's three largest cellular operators claim to have met Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) minimum standards when it comes to network availability and dropped call rates.

The operators' reports contradict two of the regulator's recent surveys, which showed none of the network providers were meeting the minimum standards set in its end-user and subscriber service charter, which came into effect in the middle of 2009.

The findings are also contrary to consumers' own experiences judging by the amount of complaints on consumer forums such as Hellopeter and micro-blogging site Twitter.

In addition, there have recently been several network outages that angered many subscribers. Vodacom's network went down in June, cutting off large parts of the country, while Cell C suffered an outage in Pretoria and Midrand earlier this month.

This week, ICASA finally published the first set of reports showing operators' compliance with its regulations. The reports, covering the 2009/10 year, show SA's mobile operators are meeting the dropped call rate, fault clearance and network availability requirements.

In terms of ICASA's charter, operators must provide ICASA with reports every six months showing that networks are available more than 95% of the time, the rate of failed calls does not exceed 3%, and that 90% of all faults are cleared within three days. If they do not meet these requirements, they face fines.

Contradictory

However, the operators' reports contradict two surveys conducted by the regulator last year, which found that operators failed to meet minimum requirements relating to call success and dropped call rates.

A survey in parts of Gauteng, in November last year, found MTN did not meet the terms of call success rate target, while Vodacom and Cell C complied with this requirement. However, all three operators failed to meet the dropped call rate targets, said ICASA.

The regulator's report on coverage during the 2010 Soccer World Cup found Vodacom, MTN and Cell C all missed quality of service targets. ICASA's reports were slammed by MTN and Vodacom, which argued its methodology of testing call rates while driving is flawed.

Despite the different outcomes, ICASA says its findings and the operators' reports do not contradict each other. Spokesman Paseka Maleka adds, however, that the regulator will investigate if the operators are found to be submitting inaccurate reports.

Maleka says the authority interrogates the reports from the operators and also does its own surveys to determine whether networks are living up to its expectations.

Grumbling grannies?

There are also thousands of complaints on the Internet from disgruntled consumers. According to Hellopeter.com's log for the past year, Vodacom is the worst offender with 9 287 complaints, compared with 1 218 compliments.

The industry average, which includes operators and service providers, was 38 136 complaints, compared with 4 609 compliments.

Some 606 complaints against Vodacom were later converted into compliments.

Cell C, SA's third largest operator, with 8.2 million subscribers, received the second-highest number of complaints at 8 967. It was complimented 741 times and 400 complaints were later turned into compliments.

MTN was the best performer, with 7 924 complaints and 904 compliments. Some 500 complaints were converted into compliments.

The complaints range from a lack of network coverage to no customer service, issues with bills, and problems with handset repairs. Consumers have also complained on Twitter about the operators.

All fine

However, despite the number of consumer complaints and both of ICASA's drive-by surveys, all the operators reported that they had exceeded ICASA's targets in the 2009/10 year.

According to Vodacom's report, its network was available 99.67% of the time. Vodacom, which has 27.7 million subscribers, has an average connectivity failure rate of 1.54%.

The network also resolved 89.27% of faults within three days, and the balance within six days. It also solved all complaints received between April and September 2008 within 14 days.

MTN's report shows that its network is available 99% of the time, and it has a 99% connectivity success rate, which includes the number of dropped calls.

The company, which has 19.2 million customers, solved 88% of fault clearances within three days, and the balance in six days. ICASA requires that 90% of faults are cleared within three days and the remaining 10% in six days.

Cell C's report indicates it has an average call setup success rate of 98.38%, while its call success rate is 97.53%. The company has an average dropped call rate of 0.85% and its network is available 99.33% of the time.

ICASA's report did not indicate how long it took Cell C to resolve complaints, but indicated it did provide a list to the authority.

Believe it, or not?

Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx, says consumers tend to be “hyper-aware of downtime”. As a result, the public will be sceptical of the operators' reports.

However, that is because people do not think about the amount of time networks work perfectly, says Goldstuck. “Individuals who are dissatisfied have no sense of proportion when it comes to quality of service.”

When a network goes down, it becomes a “national crisis”, comments Goldstuck. He says the amount of complaints is minuscule when compared with the 38 million people using cellphones and the billions of calls made each month.

“The truth is, when you look at satisfaction surveys, people tend to be 90%, 95% satisfied with the service they get from the networks.”

However, Goldstuck does not believe that complaints are handled in the required time frame. He says these figures are more likely to be an average than a complete solve rate.

“Call centres are a nightmare; that's far more of an issue than quality of calls. Call centres let down the networks and their customers across the board.” Goldstuck adds that if ICASA had measured this performance, the operators would have achieved different performance levels.

Richard Hurst, senior analyst of emerging markets at Ovum, points out that because the operators provided the statistics in the compliance reports, they would have shown the figures in the best possible light.

Network problems tend to occur in patches when they become overloaded, says Hurst. The general perception of the operators is that they are “800-pound gorillas just taking money from the small man”, he adds.

Hurst says, however, that operators are aware of issues with their networks and are doing their best to solve these.


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