Saturday, 14 December 2013

A fair comparison?

Is it fair to compare Botswana with other, perhaps more developed countries? Can we see ourselves as comparable to countries like the USA, the UK, Singapore and Japan? Are we in the same league?

Of course we are. To an extent. We’re just as talented, just as well-educated, just as focussed and entrepreneurial as anyone else, if we choose to be so. I’ve been lucky enough to work in many places and in my experience we have exactly the same proportional level of talent (and incompetence) as any other country I’ve known.

So there’s no real excuses for us to be less able as any other country. So why DO we settle for second best? Why do we allow ourselves to be given anything that is sub-standard?

Before I hear any excuses, yes I DO know that our geography has a great influence on almost every aspect of our lives. We live in a fairly large country that has a tiny population. Our population density, the average number of people in each square kilometre of land, is tiny. Just for comparison, the USA has an average of 35 people living in each square kilometre of land. The UK has 262. Singapore, a country we depend on rather too much for inspiration has an astonishing 7,669. We have 3½.

You simply can’t underestimate the effect this has on every aspect of our lives. The costs of transporting goods are always going to be higher in a country like ours compared to other parts of the world so that’s one reason that many products are a bit more expensive than another places, particularly as we import almost everything that we consume. So we should expect to pay a bit more, we have to face that.

But that’s not the case with everything we consume. Take cellphone networks for instance. Yes, we all know that erecting cellphone masts is an expensive business and with such a widely distributed population we need more of them per head than other places. So yet again things are going to be more expensive for us than in smaller countries like the UK where they have 75 times as many people in each square km. But how much more expensive does it have to be to offer services?

Let me share a personal experience. I currently pay P749 each month for my cellphone contract. For that I get 200MB of data, 250 text messages and 575 “cross net” minutes every month. Frankly it’s a small fortune.

A couple of weeks ago I was in the UK for a week. Rather than pay the extraordinary amounts of money I must pay if I roam over there I bought myself a prepaid SIM card from a local supermarket. The SIM card cost me £1 (about P14) and I then bought £10 of credit which I then used to buy their imaginatively named “£10 package”. For this amount, around P140, I got 200 minutes of calls, unlimited text messages and 250 MB of data, all of which had to be used in the next month. As you can see it’s not a million miles away from what I get here at home. The data I get was roughly the same but the text message allowance was unlimited in the UK and the call costs per minutes were just over half the Botswana price, but maybe that’s the effect of our geography you might think? So did I.

I did until the following day when I got an automated message from the UK provider thanking me for topping up with that £10 and alerting me that they were adding more to my package for free. They were giving me another 800 minutes of call time, even more unlimited texts (yes, I know if you double infinity you still get infinity) and another 1GB of data. I now had almost double the call time, an infinite number of text messages and six times as much data as I get in Botswana for a mere 20% of the cost.

In effect, the call rate at home in Botswana was ten times more expensive and the cost of the data thirty times higher than in the UK. And did I mention the unlimited text messages?

It’s not just in the UK where they get better products and services than we do. I also have a South African prepaid SIM card that I use whenever I cross the border. Not only are the call and data rates much cheaper but there are even additional services.

As soon as I plug my Vodacom SIM card into my iPhone new menu items appear, including the “Personal Hotspot” facility. I switch this on and suddenly my phone becomes a WiFi hotspot so my family can pick up their email via my phone connection. The moment I cross the border on the way home and switch back to my local SIM card that option disappears.

And another thing. The contract Vodacom offers in SA that is closest to mine here comes with an entirely free iPhone 5S.

Before anyone complains that I’m being unfair I freely admit that I am not comparing “like with like”. It’s probably not fair, I confess, to compare contract prices with prepaid. It’s not fair to compare a highly developed, densely populated country like the UK and a developing nation like ours. It’s not fair to compare technically sophisticated network providers with ours that are so obviously less so.

But is IS fair, don’t bother arguing with me, to observe that we are paying a hell of a lot more than they are for a hell of a lot less. And it’s also fair to suggest that rather than just making VAST amounts of money from us, they should offer us a bit more than the miserable products and services we currently get. Or do they think we don’t deserve any better?

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