Vodacom's trampled berries - TechCentral

Vodacom’s trampled berries

[By Duncan McLeod]

Vodacom provoked an online backlash from consumers this week when it said it would throttle bandwidth for heavy users of the popular BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS). It says it’s protecting its users, but are the limitations it’s imposing too harsh?

When Vodacom announced the restrictions this week on BlackBerry users who consume more than 100MB of data a month, it unleashed a wave of protest in online forums, on Twitter and on Facebook.

The company blamed the 5% of BIS users who were consuming more than that amount, some of them apparently using in excess of 100GB. According to Vodacom chief technology officer Andries Delport, one BIS subscriber managed to get through an astonishing 310GB in one month.

Delport says some users have found ways to “abuse” BIS — which is meant for on-device e-mail and browsing only — to download large media files and tether their phones to their computers. But Vodacom’s reaction to the problem appears to be too heavy-handed.

BIS has proved hugely popular in SA because it offers unlimited on-device Internet access for a low fixed monthly fee. It appeals to consumers, especially youngsters, because they can use their phones to send instant messages and browse the Web without the worry of high data charges.

Delport explains that the 100MB/month threshold was reached by considering the average usage of the “vast majority of BlackBerry users” on Vodacom’s network. He also says that because BIS uses compression technology, 100MB actually means consumers get between 200MB and 400MB on average. Also, once consumers use more than 100MB through BIS, they won’t be capped but rather moved from the fast 3G network to a much slower 2G service.

But the backlash is not hard to understand. Five percent is not an insignificant number, and it will grow as consumers increasingly gain access to more media-rich applications and services on their smartphones.

By imposing the throttle on customers — and presumably changing the terms and conditions of sale retrospectively — Vodacom may also be courting the wrath of the consumer commission, whose head, Mamodupi Mohlala, already appears keen to pick a fight with the operators.

I have sympathy for operators that have to deal with customers who game the system, disadvantaging other users in the process. But surely it makes more sense to go after subscribers who use too much with a fair-use agreement first rather than imposing a blanket restriction on everyone?

In a maturing mobile market that is also becoming much more competitive — especially in data services — operators need to do all they can to keep their customers happy. The perception is being created that Vodacom is losing the price war against smaller and arguably nimbler operators, especially Cell C and Telkom’s 8ta. Those two companies have less congested networks and also have less to lose by being aggressive with their pricing and promotions to win new customers. It’s a challenge Vodacom has to manage with great care and PR skill.

When Vodacom unveiled its new corporate brand identity earlier this year it promised, among other things, that it would champion the cause of its customers. Rightly or wrongly, it may now be that the opposite perception is being fostered, at least among the relatively technologically savvy and outspoken people who frequent social media networks.

Vodacom is an exceptionally well-run company led by a committed team. It may have had the best intentions in deciding to take this step. But, as the aphorism goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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