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The monster is alive and well

In 1993 South Africa licensed a monster. Fifteen years later, a new Competition Act in place and an albeit weak industry regulator set up, and the monster is still alive, well and ripping people off with joyful abandon.
Read time 3min 50sec

It goes by the name of Vodacom. And here's just one small example of its troll-like tactics.

I was borrowing a 3G for a few months of this year. When its rightful owner came back to claim it, I was distraught. Life, as I had come to like it, was changed when I could no longer leap onto the Net from the comfort of my large bed with its eight-tog duvet. So it wasn't long before I trekked to the nearest Vodacom store to get a 3G device all of my own.

For once, feeling the pain of interest rates and an unmentionably large overdraft, I decided to try and be fiscally prudent. Instead of going for the convenience of a contract, I decided on the prepaid option. My reasoning was that I didn't need to work from home every day so would probably take more than a month to chew up my bandwidth allowance. And I tend to go away quite often, so why pay for days and weeks when I'm not online?

I was rather proud of my new-found ability to sort of "tighten my belt" as our Reserve Bank governor likes to call it. So I bought the device (it's awfully pretty and sleek) for just under R2 000 and I bought my first 500MB for R189, and the SIM card of course.

But, being a bit slow with these things, I discovered after signing on the dotted line that my R189 would only last 30 days, whether or not I used the Net at all. And if, in the unfortunate event of deciding that this was a fool's game and I wanted to switch to a contract, my beautiful R2 000 device would be rendered useless and I'd have to pay for a new one.

I thought that after all of the fuss about competition, number portability and consumer choice, the monsters of the past would have changed their wicked ways.

Ren'ee Bonorchis is Business Day's editor at large.

Where is the "prepaid" in that? Where is customer choice, flexibility and care? All I see is "rip off" signs floating in front of my eyes like big, glaring images on a smug slot machine. Surely, I thought, I should get to use what I paid for, and when what I paid for was finished in one night, one month or one year, then I would be only too happy to trot off to the nearest outlet to get my next fix.

Possibly naively, I thought that after all of the fuss about competition, number portability and consumer choice, the monsters of the past would have changed their wicked ways. Yeah, right.

So imagine my level of outrage when I read in Business Report that Vodacom was launching an urgent interdict to stop the regulator from allowing the cellphone operators from locking customers into long-term contracts. Thankfully, as reported by ITWeb, Vodacom appears to have dropped the interdict. But the mere act of launching it in the first place is a clear indication that this company desperately wants to keep the local market locked in its vice like and anti competitive grip.

I used to reckon that when it came to telecommunications, the more I could avoid using Telkom in my life, the happier I would be. But I'm mostly Telkom-free these days and I'm no happier because now one of its subsidiaries has bought my soul and I can't function without it unless I'm prepared to waste a whole lot of money.

The irony here is that while we South Africans suffer some of the highest telecommunications costs in the world, the same companies that are squeezing us dry are expanding into Africa and charging our neighbours a lot less for the privilege. That makes me mad. It means that their anti competitive practices here are continuing apace while in other markets they are facing real competition and are responding to it as any decent company should - by dropping their prices.

The monster, my friends, is not under the bed, nor is it in the cupboard, it's nestled against your ear and plugged into your computer and unless we're prepared to go technologically naked, it's going to continue to rip us off for a long time to come.

* Ren'ee Bonorchis is Business Day's editor at large

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