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Data must be attacked, but by precision strike

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The campaign to target the cost of data runs the risk of missing the point, that data prices have in fact plunged – but not for the poor. By ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

When a hashtag campaign tells us that #DataMustFall, it’s easy to be caught up in the outrage at high data costs and the enthusiasm for cheap data. Aside from the operators who profit when prices remain high, no one would argue against it.

But there is one flaw in the campaign: it does not make it clear which data prices must be targeted, and why.

That’s important, because it is easy for the operators to argue that data has indeed fallen. The average price of data bundles has been cut by anywhere from 20 per cent to 50 per cent, depending on which bundles from which operators one buys. As a result, the operators can complain that they are not given credit for bringing down the cost of data.

That’s a devilishly disingenuous argument, though. Data has fallen only for the wealthy and the well-off, who can afford to buy large bundles upfront. For example, someone buying a 20GB monthly bundle from Cell C or MTN will pay only R499 a month, or 2.5c per Megabyte of data. That’s among the cheapest in the world. However, to afford that kind of bundle, you need to be earning a fairly decent salary.

For a 500MB bundle, the cost is as low as R39 a month on MTN, Cell C and Telkom Mobile. That works out at 8c per Megabyte. That’s not too shabby, either.

What is shabby is that these bundles are described as affordable, based on the per Megabyte cost.

The problem is that the bundles are not being sold per Megabyte. The problem is that entry-level smartphone owners are buying data only when they use it. The problem is that pay-as-you-go data comes off airtime. And the problem is that airtime data is the most expensive data one can buy.

It works like this: pay-as-you-go data, also described as ad hoc data because it is bought only when used, is billed at the ceiling price of data. On Vodacom, that is R2 per Megabyte. On MTN it is R1, and on Cell C it’s 99c.

Why would people endure such high costs when they could be paying as little as 8c per Megabyte? There are two answers.

The first is that at least a quarter of smartphone users are not incurring those costs. They know from hearsay that the moment they activate the Internet or data access on their phones, it starts chewing into their airtime. While there are valid explanations for this phenomenon – mainly apps updating in background or apps polling servers for status updates – it is perceived as data or airtime being stolen. It is estimated that a full 25 per cent of smartphone users do not access the Internet for these and related reasons.

The second answer is one that is a matter of pure economics. Those on the lowest income levels or earning no income will still go to great lengths to buy a prepaid voice package, as communication has become a basic human need. The fact that bundles start as low as R5 for a specified number of minutes provides the clue to just how little some voice customers can afford.

Data is not perceived as an essential purchase by most people in these segments, and is almost never bought in bundles. Even bundles as small as R25, which would achieve major savings in the cost of ad hoc data, are regarded as unaffordable.

As a result, for those who cannot afford data bundles, ad hoc usage on apps like WhatsApp, Facebook and email is almost always at the ceiling price. This means it is the ceiling price of data that must fall.

The networks call these out-of-bundle rates, but that in itself is a misnomer. It implies that it is a penalty for not buying bundles, and that further implies it is the consumer’s own fault. In other words, people are being punished for being poor.

It is ironic that it is only the once-vilified Telkom that seems to have understood this message. With any airtime recharge of R5 or up on its SIM-Sonke prepaid deals, the ceiling price of data is 29c per Megabyte. That, rather than a R5 data bundle, is what one might call affordable, despite the fact that it still limits how much usage can be made of data if most of one’s bundle is needed for voice.

Since 2011, when the smartphone revolution began in earnest in South Africa, World Wide Worx has been calling for the regulator, Icasa, to put a mandatory and affordable ceiling on the price of data. That could range from 20c to 40c, but Telkom has set a good precedent at 29c per Megabyte.

This is an obvious solution, yet it appears that the authorities would rather milk the situation for as long as it can. The Minister of Communications has mandated Icasa to investigate whether high data prices are a result of lack of competition. In other words, let’s build more time and cost into the equation, rather than acknowledge what has been obvious all along.

Some have called for data prices to be halved, but that still leaves the ad hoc user paying exorbitant rates ranging from 50c to R1 per Megabyte.

Yes, data must fall. But, rather than the carpet-bombing approach taken by a one-dimensional campaign, we need a precision strike that takes out the real enemy, namely the punitive ceiling price of mobile data.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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Low-cost wireless sport earphones get a kickstart

Wireless earphone brands are common, but not crowdfunded brands. BRYAN TURNER takes the K Sport Wireless for a run.

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As wireless technology becomes better, Bluetooth earphones have become popular in the consumer market. KuaiFit aspires to make them even more accessible to more people through a cheaper, quality product, by selling the K Sport Wireless Earphones directly from its Kickstarter page

KuaiFit has an app by the same name which offers voice-guided personal training services in almost every type of exercise, from cardio to weight-lifting. A vast range of connectivity to third-party sensors is available, like heart rate sensors and GPS devices, which work well with guided coaching. 

The app starts off with selecting a fitness level: beginner, intermediate and advanced. Thereafter, one has the ability to connect with real personal trainers via a subscription to its paid service. The subscription comes free for 6 months with the earphones, and R30 per month thereafter. 

The box includes a manual, a USB to two USB Type B connectors, different sized soft plastic eartips and the two earphone units. Each earphone is wireless and connects to the other independently of wires. This puts the K Sport Wireless in the realm of the Apple Earpods in terms of connection style. 

The earphones are just over 2cm wide and 2cm high. The set is black with a light blue KuaiFit logo on the earphone’s button. 

The button functions as an on/off switch when long-pressed and a play/pause button when quick-pressed. The dual-button set-up is convenient in everyday use, allowing for playback control depending on which hand is free. Two connectivity modes are available, single earphone mode or dual earphone mode. The dual earphone mode intelligently connects the second earphone and syncs stereo audio a few seconds after powering on. 

In terms of connectivity, the earphones are Bluetooth 4.1 with a massive 10-meter range, provided there are no obstacles between the device and the earphones. While it’s not Bluetooth 5, it still falls into the Bluetooth Low Energy connection category, meaning that the smartphone’s battery won’t be drastically affected by a consistent connection to the earphones. The batteries within the earphones aren’t specifically listed but last anywhere between 3 and 6 hours, depending on the mode. 

Audio quality is surprisingly good for earphones at this price point. The headset style is restricted to in-ear due to its small design and probable usage in movement-intensive activities. As a result, one has to be very careful how one puts these earphones, in because bass has the potential of getting reduced from an incorrect in-ear placement. In-ear earphones are usually notorious for ear discomfort and suction pain after extended usage. These earphones are one of the very few in this price range that are comfortable and don’t cause discomfort. The good quality of the soft plastic ear tip is definitely a factor in the high level of comfort of the in-ear earphone experience.

Overall, the K Sport Wireless earphones are great considering the sound quality and the low price: US$30 on Kickstarter.

Find them on Kickstarter here.

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Taxify enters Google Maps

A recent update to Taxify now uses Google Maps which allows users to identify their drivers, find public transport and search for billing options.

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People planning their travel routes using Google Maps will now see a Taxify icon in the app, in addition to the familiar car, public transport, walking and billing options.

Taxify started operating in South Africa in 2016 and as of October 2018 operates in seven South African cities – Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, Tshwane, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Polokwane.

Once riders have searched for their destination and asked the app for directions, Google Maps shares the proximity of cars on the Taxify platform, as well as an estimated fare for the trip.

If users see that taking the Taxify option is their best bet, they can simply tap on the ‘Open app’ icon, to complete the process of booking the ride. Customers without the app on their device will be prompted to install Taxify first.

This integration makes it possible for users to evaluate which of the private, public or e-hailing modes of transport are most time-efficient and cost-effective.

“This integration with Google Maps makes it so much easier for users to choose the best way to move around their city,” says Gareth Taylor, Taxify’s country manager for South Africa. “They’ll have quick comparisons between estimated arrival times for the different modes of transport, as well as fares they can expect to pay, which will help save both time and money,” he added.

Taxify rides in Google Maps are rolling out globally today and will be available in more than 15 countries, with South Africa being one of the first countries to benefit from this convenient service.

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