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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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AppDate: Prepare for space

In this week’s AppDate, SEAN BACHER highlights Space Nation Navigator, Hitman Sniper, Snake Mask, Memrise, WhatsApp Web, and Carrot Weather.

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Space Nation Navigator

Space Nation Navigator is a bit of a strange app. It is part game, part exercise and part educational. On the game side, users have to navigate the Mars Rover, put the International Space Station back into orbit or move their Martians to safety before a sand storm hits Mars. When it comes to exercise, Space Nation Navigator provides users with a range of exercises and Yoga videos to prepare them for space travel and working in an anti-gravity environment. The education aspect teaches users about the planets, and star constellations, and then offers quizzes on what has been taught.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: A free download.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Memrise

Memrise takes a new approach to help people learn new languages. Instead of providing a user with random phrases and words to memorise, the app connects you with a person already fluent in the language you want to learn. In turn, the person you are speaking to wants to learn the language in which you are fluent. Once your profile is filled out and languages selected, it connects you with people around the world who are interested in your language, and then allows you to chat with them in real-time. Memrise also lets one learn new languages through games, chatbots and grammarbots that help with spelling, tenses and pronunciations.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: A free download.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Hitman Sniper

Hitman Sniper is loosely based on the Agent 47 movie released a few years ago. The game offers players the ability to hone their shooting skills through a range of training courses and, once they think they are ready, they can start taking out the bad guys. Things start off easy enough, but they get more and more difficult as one progresses through the 150 missions on offer. One will also have to upgrade various gun components, like scopes, magazine capacities and silencers, to make the missions a little easier. Hitman Sniper lets users buy 16 to tackle each of the missions – either with real money or via the points accumulated by completing missions. Money and points can also be used to upgrade firearms.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: R7 – with a range of in-app purchases.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Snake Mask

The iconic Snake game that was preinstalled on most older Nokia phones has had a complete make-over. It now uses Facebook’s AR technology, meaning that you have to navigate the snake around obstacles in your home or office, all the while collecting coins and stars that change the snake’s speed and length. Unfortunately, Snake Mask is only available on Nokia’s new range of smartphones. However, it should not take long before it slithers onto other devices.

 

Platform: New Nokia smartphones running Android.

Cost: Free to use through the Facebook app installed on the device.

Stockists: Available through the Facebook app.

 

WhatsApp Web

Although this is by no means a new app, it is an extremely useful one, and one that not many people know about. Tapping out WhatsApps on your phone is easy enough, but thanks to WhatsApp Web it can be even easier. Open the WhatApp Web page under WhatsApp and you will see a QR code. Scan this code through WhatsApp on your mobile and you will be shown a replica of what you would normally see on your phone. You can then type and reply to messages using your computer instead of having to stop everything and unlock your phone every time a message comes through. WhatsApp Web is great if you share your computer with other people as it automatically disconnects when the browser is closed. However WhatsApp also offers an app that when installed will stay connected to your phone unless you manually remove it.

 

Platform: Any up-to-date Internet browser

Cost: Free to use and install

Stockists: Visit www.WhatsApp.com

 

Carrot Weather

There are thousands of weather apps on the Internet these days and all of them do the same thing – inform you of the weather in your area. However, Carrot Weather has taken what is just another app and turned it into something fun. By fun, I mean sarcastic, rude and completely politically incorrect. A user starts off by selecting religious and political views. It then asks about personality, ranging from friendly to homicidal to overkill – which includes profanity. So, for instance, instead of waking up to to the standard partly cloudy forecast, Carrot Weather will display something like: “It’s only partly sunny, the sun is a total effing failure.” It also has a range of insults that it throws at you whenever you open the app – some of them downright insulting, so it is definitely not for those who are easily offended. The app’s user interface is very simple, displaying a week’s daily forecast and hourly forecasts for the day selected.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: Free to download but with adverts. The premium, advert free version costs R12 per month.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

* Sean Bacher is editor of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @SeanBacher

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SA Start-up reinvents PABX

For any South African business, the idea of setting up or changing a telephonic switchboard system is the stuff of nightmares. Dealing with expensive hardware and hearing things like QSIG and VOIP is not what you’d call exciting.But now there is an app.

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Enter BuzzBox (www.buzzboxcloud.co.za), a web-based telephone switchboard that is aimed at small and medium sized businesses wanting to take the hassle and cost out of the company switchboard. Whether you are a small one-man operation or a larger organisation with staff working remotely, BuzzBox is the best switchboard solution.

What sets BuzzBox apart from anything else on the market is its easy-to-use dashboard. It puts you in control of everything from picking your phone number to setting up voice prompts and managing your business-hours schedule.

BuzzBox was developed when the startup behind it, Jini-Guru, needed such a service for its own use across multiple continents. “When we started Jini-Guru we could not find a seamless online process that would allow us to set up a full web-based switchboard, so we decided to build one for ourselves,” says Mike Smits, Director at Jini-Guru.

He says a lot of startups today are tech savvy and know how to use apps and the services that go with it. “It’s the uberisation of services and its driving demand for instant service activation.”

BuzzBox works as an app on both iOS and Android but users wanting a desk phone option can choose from a variety of devices on offer or use their existing VOIP phones.

Setting up a BuzzBox account takes 5 minutes. During registration your FICA documents are uploaded [ID and proof or residence] and you get to pick your phone number before the account is created. Companies that want to keep an existing number can do so too.

The real magic happens when you log on to the BuzzBox Dashboard. The main screen displays a summary of statistics for your account while the left-hand menu provides you quick access to various configuration settings and reports.

Setting up new extensions or external numbers is done with a few clicks and you can even set up various departments which is a great way to route a call to various people in a department, like sales or support.

The intuitive user interface also makes it easy to set up hold-music and voice prompts. You can add voice prompts by recording them straight to your phone, just make sure you use a clear voice with quiet surroundings for the best customer experience.

One of the main features of BuzzBox is its call recording feature that allows an organisation to record calls for legislative purposes, such as a lawyer, or for customer service purposes such as support. Recordings are stored securely online, and you have the ability to download recordings for playback. Companies can opt-in for this service and it’s free to use. Recordings are stored online and are fully encrypted so only you can listen to, or download them. Storage costs R1 for every 1000 minutes of stored recordings.

Other features include call forwarding and scheduling. The latter allows you to set office hours for your organisation which will divert calls to an after-hours messaging service. You also have the option to enable routing to an employee who is on call after hours.

BuzzBox also has a reseller program for companies wanting to offer this as a switchboard solution to their existing customers.

The costs for this service is R89 p/m for the first phone number which includes your first extension for free. Thereafter you’ll pay R89p/m per extension. Calls between extensions are free but you pay per second for all outgoing phone calls. More info on pricing can be found here: https://buzzboxcloud.co.za/pricing/

BuzzBox is offering a Launch promotion where they are offering the first line and extension free for 12 months. Only pay for calls. Use promo code “feoifyaa” during sign-up to apply your discount.

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