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Travel tech Pt 2: War on bill shock

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A major challenge when travelling internationally is to remain connected without breaking the bank. In the second of a series of articles on travel technology, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK declares war on bill shock.

We may have defeated the monster of interconnect fees that have needlessly inflated cellular bills over the years, but there is another demon to be fought. It may affect fewer people but, for those it does, the effect is far more severe.

It is called roaming, and it represents a monumental assault on both the rights and the budgets of travellers. The worst offender is data use on a phone. The highest price one can pay for data as a South African user in this country is R2 per Megabyte of data downloaded or uploaded, and even that is exorbitant. For those who can afford it, buying a data bundle brings the price down to less than 10c per Megabyte.

Out of the country, however, if you forget to disable mobile data while roaming, the cost can shoot up to as much as R150 per Megabyte. To put that in context, using up a typical bundle costing around R200 for 1 Gigabyte in South Africa will suddenly cost R150 000. And no, that’s not a misprint.

The European Union has recognised the rapacious nature of such rates and dictated a cap of 20 Euro cents for mobile customers of operators within the EU, roaming within the EU. In other words, it doesn’t apply if you come from elsewhere. That means South Africans still have no protection there. The International Telecommunications Union has looked at the issue from a global perspective, but appears to lack the teeth to do much more than “look”.

Part of the problem is that roaming rates are based on bilateral agreements between networks, since there is no cross-border regulator that can enforce rates.

Of course, mobile operators themselves should be more vigorous in addressing the issue. After all, the likes of Vodafone and MTN have vast international networks that could contribute significantly to the debate. However, networks benefit hugely from customers of other networks roaming on their own networks, and have demonstrated little enthusiasm for killing the goose that lays this diamond egg.

In the same way, they fought tooth and nail against the cutting of interconnect fees in South Africa, arguing it would force them to increase rather than decrease the cost of calls.  No one was buying the argument then and, half a dozen cost cuts later, the disingenuousness of the argument has been thoroughly exposed. Right now, we have the same kind of disingenuous arguments around roaming rates.

So, before providing a weapon in the fight against bill shock, let it be firmly stated: the current high international roaming rates for data are unjustifiable, indefensible, and unconscionable. The networks should expect no sympathy or understanding for their arguments justifying the rates. “Just do something about it,” is the message of the consumer.

The weapon

The obvious cure for roaming data is to have a mobile Wi-FI device, commonly referred to as a Mi-Fi, although MiFi is in fact a brand name for a mobile Wi-FI device first manufactured by Novatel. In South Africa, most such devices are manufactured by Huawei, with ZTE and Alcatel also players.

One then needs to pick up a local data SIM card the moment one lands at a foreign airport. The problem is that, at many airports, no such option is available. In some cases, like at Heathrow in the UK, one can pick up incredibly cheap SIM offering unlimited data for a month at less than £20.

At JFK in New York, a more limited option can cost twice as much.

In the USA, the best current option is to visit a T-Mobile store and pay $40 for a SIM card that offers 1GB of data at 4G speeds, and then unlimited data at around 182 kbps. The store assistants will tell you that it’s not usable at that speed and you should pay twice as much for a bigger bundle, but the slower option is in fact quite effective for anything ranging from e-mail to WhatsApp and basic browsing on a phone.

In many countries, even better options are available, but in others the cost is prohibitive. The more countries one visits, the more complex the process becomes.

The best option is, on arrival at a foreign airport, hiring a Mi-Fi device that includes a data SIM card and data allowance, but this also depends on the luck of the airport draw. So far, I’ve found such options at reasonable prices only in Tokyo and San Francisco.

The ideal, of course, it to have an option that is set up even before one departs, and that works anywhere, across countries, cities, airports, transit lounges, and points between. And, fortunately, there is just such an option.

I was rescued on a recent trip through several countries by a device called PocketWifi, from South African company ExceMobile. It looks like a fat Mi-Fi, but its magic is on the inside. It contains no less than six SIM cards, each representing agreements with networks that cover almost every country in the world. One of them also acts as a master SIM through which the device is updated when needed.

The cost of usage may not seem low at first site: ranging from R199 to R349 per day, depending on the country, with 300MB of data included in the rate and a new bundle applied as one uses up each bundle.

High, maybe, but faced with the alternative, of up to R150 for 1 MB, it is not only viable, but is also an obvious solution.

On a recent brief trip that covered Germany and Poland, I incurred an ExecMobile bill of R996, which is high compared to my usual local bill. But the cost, had I been on mobile data roaming on the phone, would have been – hold your breath – R72 300 on MTN, and R73 472 on Vodacom.

Okay, breathe now. It’s okay. You’re going to be fine. You weren’t roaming.

Or were you?

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee, and subscribe to his YouTube channel at http://bit.ly/GGadgets

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Samsung S10 in lock-step with its rivals?

Tonight Samsung will kick off the next round in the smartphone wars with the S10 range, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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When Samsung unveils the new S10 smartphone at an event in San Francisco today, it will mark the beginning of the 2019 round of World War S. That stands for smartphone wars, although Samsung would like it to be all about the S.

Ever since the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S4 in 2013, Samsung has held both technology and thought leadership in the handset world. Back then, Apple’s iPhone 5 was the last device from the American manufacturer that could lay claim to being the best smartphone in the world. With the 2013 launch of the iPhone 5s, Apple entered an era of incremental improvement, playing catch-up, and succumbing to market trends driven by its competitors.

Six years later, Samsung is fighting off the same threat. Its Chinese rival, Huawei, suddenly wrested away leadership in the past year, with the P20 Pro and Mate 20 Pro regarded as at last equal to the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus and Galaxy Note 9 – if not superior. Certainly, from a cost perspective, Huawei took the lead with its more competitive prices, and therefore more value for money.

Huawei also succeeded where Apple failed: introducing more economical versions of its flagship phones. The iPhone 5c, SE and XR have all been disappointments in the sales department, mainly because the price difference was not massive enough to attract lower-income users. In contrast, the Lite editions of the Huawei P9, P10 and P20 have been huge successes, especially in South Africa.

Today, for the first time in half a decade, Samsung goes into battle on a field laid out by its competitors. It is expected to launch the Galaxy S10 Plus, S10 and S10 e, with the latter being the Samsung answer to the strategy of the iPhone XR and Huawei P20 Lite.

Does this mean Samsung is now in lock-step with its rivals, focused on matching their strategies rather than running ahead of them?

It may seem that way, but Samsung has a few tricks up its electronic sleeve. For example, it is possible it will use the S10 launch to announce its coming range of foldable phones, expected to be called the Galaxy X, Galaxy F, Galaxy Fold or Galaxy Flex. It previewed the technology at a developer conference in San Francisco last November, and this will be the ideal moment to reclaim technology leadership by going into production with foldables – even if the S10 range itself does not shoot out the lights.

However, the S10 handsets will look very different to their predecessors. First, before switching on the phone, they will be notable by the introduction of what is being called the punch-hole display, which breaks away from the current trend of having a notch at the top of the phone to house front-facing cameras and speakers. Instead, the punch-hole is a single round cut-out that will contain the front camera. It is the key element of Samsung’s “Infinity O” display – the O represents the punchhole – which will be the first truly edge-to-edge display, on the sides and top.

The S10 range will use the new Samsung user interface, One UI, also unveiled at the developer conference. It replaces the previous “skin”, unimaginatively called the Samsung Experience, to introduce a strong new interface brand.

One UI went live on the Note 8 last month, giving us a foretaste, and giving Samsung a chance to iron out the bugs in the field. It is a less cluttered interface, addressing one of the biggest complaints about most manufacturer skins. Only Nokia and Google Pixel handsets offer pure Android in the local market, but One UI is Samsung’s best compromise yet.

It introduces a new interaction area, in the bottom half, reachable with the thumb, with a viewing area at the top, allowing the user to work one-handed on the bottom area while still having apps or related content visible above. One UI also improves gesture navigation – the phone picks up hand movements without being touched – and notification management.

The S10 range will be the first phones to feature the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chip, at least for the South African and American markets. That makes it 5G compatible, for when this next generation of mobile broadband becomes available in these markets.

They will also be the first phones to feature Wi-Fi 6, the next generation of the Wi-Fi mobile wireless standard. It will perform better in congested areas, and data transfer will be up to 40% faster than the previous generation.

The phones will be the first to use ultrasound for fingerprint detection. If Samsung gets it right, this will make it the fastest in-screen fingerprint sensor on the market, and allows for a little leeway if one pushes the finger down slightly outside the fingerprint reader surface. It does mean, however, that screen protectors will have to be redesigned to avoid blocking the detection.

Not enough firsts? There are a few more.

Most notably, it will be the first phone range to feature 1 Terabyte (TB) storage – that’s a thousand Gigabytes (GB) – at least for the top-of-the-range devices. Samsung last month announced that it would be the first manufacturer to make 1TB built-in onboard flash storage. Today, it will deploy this massive advantage as it once again weaponises its technology in the fight for smartphone domination.

  • 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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IoT set to improve authentication

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By Sherry Zameer, Senior Vice President, Internet of Things Solutions for CISMEA region at Gemalto

As it rapidly approaches maturity, the Internet of Things (IoT) is set to continue a transformational trajectory, introducing new efficiencies in multiple fields by allowing measurement and analysis on a scale that has never been possible before. From agriculture to logistics, from retail to hospitality, from traffic to health, from the home to the office, the applications for monitoring ”things” are limited only by the imagination.

And South African (and African) businesses are showing abundant imagination in their practical deployments of IoT solutions in multiple settings, creating a better tomorrow through almost universal measurement and the introduction of new levels of convenience – including how to access locations, devices and services securely.

Any company, whether South African or international, should bear in mind that understanding consumer expectations can be the key to unlocking the full potential of IoT devices and related smart services.

According to Gemalto’s latest Connected Living study, improving the way consumers authenticate themselves to services is one of the most anticipated benefits of IoT, highlighting a desire for a more seamless and secure IoT experience.

Consumers are interested in advanced ways of authenticating themselves through automatic (based on behavioral patterns) or biometric techniques, lessening the need to have to intervene manually, all in the name of a much more streamlined authentication process. Smartphone manufacturers like Apple and Samsung have already placed fingerprint and facial recognition high on the agenda. There is also a widespread positive sentiment towards IoT’s potential for improving the quality of home life through connected, smart appliances.

Personalised services is something else that wins consumers over. In fact, a fluid, personalised and unified experience with continuity of services, together with security and privacy, is critical for the successful implementation of any technology.

And those types of services are today quite possible. With everything being connected – from small gadgets to digital solutions for large enterprises – IoT is no longer just a buzzword. That much is clear in a piece from Vodacom IoT managing executive Deon Liebenberg. Writing for IOL Online, Liebenberg provides insight into the sheer range of applications for IoT: the 20 use cases he cites range from the obvious, like transport and logistics, to the connected home and wearables; he even suggests tagging pets with IoT transmitters, for those who always need to know the whereabouts of the family cat.

Low-cost tags fitted to cats, dogs, lamp posts, shipping containers or other items are just one part of the puzzle, however. There are other two pieces; arguably the most complex part is the availability of communication networks in areas where there aren’t any WiFi networks, or indeed, anything else.

And that’s where the bigger takeaway from Liebenberg’s piece and other IoT trends articles becomes apparent. The communication networks are there, as are those tags: dedicated IoT networks (like LoraWAN, SigFox and narrowband IoT) are all available in South Africa.

So, too, is the third and final essential component. Software which is able to process the data generated by the tag and transmitted over the IoT network and into the internet. In this regard, there’s no shortage of solutions available from cloud providers like AWS and Azure; electronics giant Siemens, too, is in on the action, having recently launched a new cloud-based IoT operating system to develop applications and services for process industries, including oil and gas and water management.

This combination means it is quite possible right now to enable just about any use case. Business owners, who will know best how IoT can add value in their organisation, can now see their ideas becoming reality. Most crucial of all, IoT solutions delivering new levels of efficiency and convenience are not only possible, they are able to be offered with the simple and effective security that will drive consumer acceptance.

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