The heavy cost of data during lockdown

The mobile internet usage has increased significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown as people are forced to conduct daily business from their homes using digital technology and the internet. While mobile operators say they have reduced the cost of data, recent reports indicate that out of 228 countries globally, Botswana is amongst the top 14 countries with the most expensive data and this has dire consequences for socio-economic growth, LAWRENCE SERETSE, KEABETSWE NEWEL AND TLOTLO KEBINAKGABO report.

Out of 228 countries globally, Botswana is among the top 14 countries with the most expensive data, according to a research done by Data from 5 554 mobile data plans in 228 countries were gathered and analyzed by the company between the 3rd of February and 25th February 2020. The average cost of one gigabyte (1GB) was then calculated and compared to form a worldwide mobile data pricing league table.

BOCRA disputes findings by Head of Communications, Aaron Nyelesi says the price for the newly introduced 2Gb was P95.00 at Mascom and P120.00 at Orange while a 1Gb was charged P75.00 at BTCL.

The Botswana Gazette however, found that data costs vary per package. Data for only social network accessibility may be cheaper. What BOCRA provides is the cheapest available rates in Botswana, but this publication has established that 2GB of data costs as high as P399 (60 days), as the report suggested. While the prices are exorbitant, consumers have on social media described the quality and speed of the internet as appalling.

Increased traffic due to COVID-19 lockdown exposed the mobile network companies and frustrated subscribers. Further, most African countries like Ghana, Rwanda, Nigeria ,Kenya, Zambia and Lesotho, charge between of USD0.95 (around P10) and USD4.30 ( around P47). Botswana is pegged at USD 13.7 (around P150) per 1GB. At Mascom, Tebogo Lebotse-Sebego, the Chief Communications & PR Officer agreed with BOCRA that Mascom was cheaper.

So did Golekanye Molapise, PR and Communications Manager at BTC Mobile, as well as Lame Madiba, Communications Manager at Orange Botswana.

Apart from the data prices, the network quality provided by the three mobile phone companies is left wanting. Rabi Nthobo shakes her head in despair when actually thinking that her mobile phone operator, Orange Botswana, a French mobile network company offers the latest 4G technology to their customers with compatible handsets. To her, the company is chewing more than it can swallow.

“I mean I am not even satisfied with their 3G right now. How will they handle 4G if they cannot handle 3G,” she queries in rhetoric. The 29 year old accountant pulls out her Samsung S10 gadget and points to a spinning/buffering little wheel on the Light Emitting Diode (LED) screen as the Smartphone delays uploading a picture on a social media network. “Do you honestly think this speed is really 200 kilobytes per second (about 0.2 megabytes per second),”she asks, perhaps in rhetoric. Her displeasure is caused by the fact that during lockdown, the service was worse; accessing internet through her gadget was a hassle.

She seems agitated, especially because as she uses the poor service from the mobile phone giant, she loses almost P1 per MB, which piles on top of the profits made by the international French mobile company. While her network spends its better part buffering, she is not spared of the charges, which means she loses money even when struggling to access internet because of poor network.

At a previous engagement, The Botswana Gazette hardly got a satisfactory answer from Dr. Patrick Benon, the chief executive officer (CEO) at Orange Botswana, regarding the dissatisfaction experienced with their 3G technology and in the latest 4G technology.

At that time, he could only say technology has its limits. At Mascom Wireless, Lebotse-Sebego also struggled to reveal reasons why her company has been failing to provide quality 3G/4G speed internet, that operates at full capacity.

BTC Mobile and Mascom customers, like Tebogo Alfred (Mascom User) are unable to quench their undying thirst and addiction for social networks like facebook, and twitter because Mascom internet is not always accessible as and when customers want, and when it comes it is so slow that it tests his patience. Sebego notes with confidence that Mascom is ready and has full capacity to handle 4G and provides internet at an international speed and quality. She adds that 4G LTE, which Mascom launched, is intended to address problems experienced at 3G.

“It is intended to offer better capacity and speed to handle a rapid increase in data traffic. A 4GLTE network will give Mascom 4GLTE subscribers greater ease of transferring large volumes of data and will give Mascom the possibility to offer a variety of end user services,” Sebego says.

However, Orange Botswana boss Benon says customers had interest in high technology. To him, it is not that 3G was slower than its expected capacity, he feels customers were now looking for a faster technology and internet, hence Orange’s decision to launch 4G. At BTC Mobile, Molapise said he is aware of customer frustrations because of poor network and that BTC engineers are working around the clock to ensure smooth accessibility.

However, an Information Technology expert Bashi Kikia differs. To him, Orange Botswana, BTCL and Mascom Wireless are not going to provide a 4G speed technology practically. “This is just a marketing gimmick,” he says. Kikia, who owns an IT company called Real Time Solutions, says 4G according to him means 100 MB/second, and he is certain that there is no way these three mobile services giants will give Batswana a taste of that. The problem according to Kikia is high congestion by network users especially in Gaborone, which overwhelms the capacity of Mascom, Orange and BTC.

The IT guru says that mobile network companies do not have enough transmission towers which could reduce traffic congestion and increase quality of their services. He says that in Gaborone, where there are more cell phone users, the population overwhelms network service providers more than in other areas where there is less traffic and better service. He gives an example that in areas like Serowe, Mahalapye and others internet is faster because less people access internet hence reduced traffic on the transmission towers. “The problem is that they are not investing in infrastructure to better the service,” he adds.

His views strike a familiar chord with a report released in March 2020 by Botswana Communications and Regulatory Authority (BOCRA), which says that challenges mostly come from the lack of capacity to handle the market demand by the three local mobile network companies. A recent research by Botswana Communication Regulatory Authority (BOCRA) states that between 2016 and 2019 mobile broadband subscriptions increased by 29 percent. That is from 1,360,236 subscribers in March 2016 to 1,752,547 in March 2019. According to BOCRA which is under the stewardship of CEO Martin Mokgware, the journey to achieving broadband connectivity targets as per the National Broadband Strategy is faced with various challenges which require concerted effort to mitigate.

“For both fixed broadband and fixed wireless broadband, only 2 percent of the subscriptions are of speed over 10Mbps. This is in contrast to the proposed target that broadband speed in urban areas must reach a minimum 100Mbps by year 2023,”reads the latest report from Mokgware’s BOCRA.

BOCRA says it is expected that the rollout of FTTx ( FTTX stands for Fiber to the X (where X is a particular name/object). and 4G will go a long way in facilitating achievement of the targets.
“ It is important that the broadband infrastructure should be of high speed and high bandwidth with resilience and undoubted quality of service in order that the economy is well placed to participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” BOCRA cautions.

BOCRA’s previous CEO, Thari Pheko once said in an interview with this publication that the local infrastructure (transmission towers) was only meant to handle voice calls, but with an increasing demand for data usage fuelled by technological development, the available infrastructure cannot handle the market demand, hence the need by mobile companies to invest to better service equipment to Batswana.

Dr. Benon at Orange Botswana however says there is no need to invest in infrastructure because already, government of Botswana has invested in fibre cables that are to better the speed and capacity of internet. Nonetheless, his competitor, at Botswana Telecommunications Limited (BTCL) say they have recently invested 9 million Euro (Around P100 million) which improved the capacity of their core network as well as adding thirty eight 3G sites most of which are now operational. “As a result of the expansion of the 4G (LTE) network, BTC has the widest 4G coverage. We also upgraded out VSAT technology to deliver broadband in very remote areas and launched the only Tier 11 Uptime Certified Data Centre in Botswana which hosts local content and some international brands such as Facebook and Google,” adds Molapise.

Furthermore, Molapise, BTC’s Communications and Marketing manager, admits that there are currently some limited instances of network congestion.

“We continue to monitor our customer’s usage and aim to provide them with world class service by continuing to invest in improving the customer experience,” he stresses.

At Mascom, Lebotse-Sebego says great strides have been made in the deployment of Mascom’s own transmission backbone and Metropolitan fibre rings. “Deployment of own transmission backbone includes fiber route between Tlokweng Border all the way to Ramokgwebana Border. This is intended to serve the villages and towns along the road,” she says.

Fuether the spokesperson says, “ We have also employed metro fibre to cover Gaborone and Francistown. The fibre is linked to our towers and sites to improve customer experience, network quality and prepare our network for new technology. This fiber investment is at a value of P150 Million”.

Despite this, Kikia argues that Botswana Government has invested a lot in fibre network cables which has the capacity to provide super fast internet. He says the problem is that mobile networks limit the usage of these fibre cables especially to individual users but rather use them in full capacity at corporate level where they benefit increased profits. “And this is a problem that must be addressed by the regulator,” he adds.