'Peculiar behaviour' is simply Kenyan mobile ingenuity

Tuesday April 4 2017

By JOHN WALUBENGO
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The former CEO of a famous mobile phone company is on record saying that Kenyans are a peculiar lot when it comes to using mobile services. 

At that time, Kenyans had discovered a cheap way to beat the high costs of mobile phone services, a modern version of smoke signals, as it were.

For example, you would agree with your colleague, friend or spouse on some "flash" signals, where flashing meant initiating a call, with clear instructions that it should not be picked or terminated.

The receiver simply listened to the buzz or call signal. A single "buzz" followed by a "disconnect" from the caller may mean, "I have arrived".  Two buzzes and a disconnect may mean, "I am running late", among others.

From the customer's perspective, it works wonders, since you have communicated without incurring any cost. From a service provider's perspective it’s a nightmare since the "buzz" occupies space on the network that is then not paid for.

Essentially, this is busy traffic that has no monetary value, despite incurring all the associated costs of transmission. “Peculiar Kenyans!” is how the then frustrated CEO summed it up. Fast-forward to today, and Kenyans continue to be peculiar in many ways.

NOT REALLY STEALING

Some are asking, and rightly so, why their data bundles should expire. I mean, you buy 1GB of data and after four weeks, it expires and cannot be used. Yet you can actually see that you have not consumed all of it. Isn’t this what is called white-collar robbery?

Not exactly. From the service provider’s perspective, your goods must be expensed within a given time frame. Otherwise they fall back to the same situation similar to the "flashing" practice.

Data bundles bought and parked somewhere to be used sometime next year do not add value to the service providers, since their investment in infrastructure is time-constrained.

To build and roll out telecommunication networks requires hefty amounts of money. That money is advanced to the mobile network operator from investors, shareholders and banks, among other sources.

In most cases, such investors expect a certain level of return on their investments after a certain period of time. If the infrastructure money was loaned from a bank, that bank will be waiting for its interest every month.

Clearly, the mobile operator cannot tell the bank that its customers who have bought the monthly service plan intend to spread that cost over an unpredictable number of months and so they should just wait and see.

The mobile operator may love you very much, but cannot really accord you the flexibility you want with your data bundles.

They will expire them promptly each month just so as to make their financial projections predictable. They are not really stealing from you but simply covering their costs and making their shareholders happy.

ROAMING CHARGED

The last peculiar habit of Kenyans relates to mobile money transfers. Many will identify with sending some Kenyan some mobile money and then being told to "tuma na ya kutoa", meaning, send the principal amount plus the withdrawal charge.

This habit arises from the fact that mobile operators charge commissions on both the sending and withdrawal processes. This is similar to a bank charging you for both depositing and withdrawing your money.

On this one, I tend to side with the peculiar Kenyans. We should not be penalised twice. Let the commission charged on the sending party be sufficient. There’s no need to slap a similar amount on the receiving party.

It sounds a bit punitive and seems to be borrowed from the roaming charges regime. This is where a subscriber travelling in a foreign country is charged for receiving a call from the home country, even though the caller is paying for the call.

Mobile operators should review this double-charging arrangement and spare Kenyans some burden in money transfers.

I know there are many more peculiar Kenyan behaviours or workarounds than the few highlighted here. Feel free to share here or inbox me accordingly.

Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at the Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT. Email: [email protected], Twitter: @jwalu