By Craig Wilson
MTN SA’s newly launched “smartphone Internet services” have created a storm of protest from consumers. The operator says they’re aimed at entry-level smartphone users and are positioned as an equivalent to BlackBerry’s immensely popular BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS). There’s just one problem: the products don’t offer anything new and don’t compare well to BIS.
The love affair SA consumers have with BlackBerry is understandable. Though browsing the Web on a BlackBerry can sometimes make continental drift appear swift by comparison, it is at least a genuinely uncapped offering for on-device browsing at a reasonable flat rate. BIS is slow, but it works.
MTN is pitching its new smartphone services as alternatives to the BlackBerry platform, saying they’re similarly priced and offer customers “BIS benefits with any smartphone”. They’re similarly priced, to be sure — in fact, they’re a bit cheaper — but that’s where any resemblance ends.
If the offerings included a BBM equivalent such as unlimited WhatsApp messaging and uncapped on-device browsing — even if at Edge rather than 3G speeds — MTN’s claims would be justified. But they don’t.
Instead, the “new” packages are really just existing data bundles given confusing new names and a fresh spin by MTN’s marketing department. The operator denies the packages are simply existing offerings rebranded and claims they have different expiry rules and cheaper out-of-bundle rates.
MTN is right: once the new offerings are depleted, the out-of-bundle rates (MTN calls them out-of-fair-use rates) are a bit cheaper. It’s also right that the new package expiry rules are different: they’re worse. Though MTN’s prepaid data packages typically expire at the end of the following calendar month, the new ones expire at the end of the same month!
As if being bombarded with jargon and obfuscated terms and conditions isn’t bad enough, MTN has opted to employ the term “fair use” in its description of each package’s data allocation. Traditionally, the term “fair use” is associated with an uncapped offering and usually means download speeds are throttled once a predefined data limit is breached. These new products aren’t uncapped at all, so why use the term?
Once a user reaches a 75MB data limit, they’re simply returned to out-of-bundle (sorry, out-of-fair-use) rates. The only way around this is to load multiple packages, which MTN says will be depleted in the order in which they’re loaded.
Inexplicably, however, customers aren’t permitted to load multiple instances of the same package in a single sitting.
Though existing prepaid data users can buy up to 2GB of data at once, the biggest data allocation on the new packages is 75MB. MTN claims that this is because the packages are aimed at “entry-level smartphone users” who, it says, use around 50MB/month on average.
MTN claims that by using the Opera Mini Web browser, customers can eke out as much as 500MB worth of data from the 75MB bundle. In fact, for one of its new offerings, using the MTN-branded version of Opera’s mobile browser is a stipulation of the package. Oh, the complexity!
The suggestion that these smartphone packages are something new and magnanimous is disingenuous. They appear, for some reason, to be more of a dig at BlackBerry than an attempt to offer MTN’s customers a genuinely valuable service and perhaps raise more questions about the operator’s relationship with BlackBerry maker Research in Motion than anything else.
Add to that the fact that consumers have to plough through a complex list of terms and conditions only to find that the new products bear a striking resemblance to the existing, unadorned, 75MB-for-R49 data package MTN offers already and the new data plans leave a pretty unpleasant taste in the mouth.
By choosing to couch the packages in the terms it has, it feels as if MTN is trying to enjoy the last of the heady days of operators getting to behave like cowboys while the National Consumer Commission finds its feet.
Where new products should aim to benefit consumers and be simpler to understand, MTN appears to be happy to bamboozle and mislead.
Reading MTN’s peculiar press release on the matter — with the corker of a line, “The ubiquitous use of smartphones, tablets or laptops has become so prevalent that it is unlikely that one can sneeze without wetting a smart device user” — you’d be forgiven for thinking the company is doing its customers a favour.
It’s baffling how this set of offerings made it past the brains trust at MTN.
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