Herewith my experience attempting to relocate a Telkom line, Ed.
My first call to the Telkom operator from the line that is going to be relocated is unsuccessful, thus beginning a series of similar unfortunate phone calls. Each time I am asked by a machine to enter the number I am calling about and also my 13 digit ID number, only to have to repeat this information verbally to the operator, a case of pretending to be in the information age?
I explain that I am moving from Woodstock to Muizenberg. I give the exact street address and room number of the apartment, a duplex near the Beachfront. The person tells me the address is on google maps but not on the Telkom system. I need to give the ‘name’ of the apartment, she says. I tell her, I don’t know the exact name, but surely the street address and room number will suffice? She puts the phone down on me.
I arrive at my new address, and call Telkom again from a mobile phone. After about 40 minutes on hold, with an obsequious rich voice assuring me that I am being attended to, I give up, (It seems Telkom have two voices, one when soliciting services and another when demanding money — that irritating old apartheid Tannie must work when it comes to bad debts).
Next call I eventually get through after 20 minutes. Each call consumes an enormous amount from my capped mobile contract. There is no toll free relocation number to assist persons such as myself. No attempt to finesse the plight of those unfortunates wishing to relocate. I duly give the details of the apartment, including its “name”. “It’s a totally different area, says the operator, you will have to get a different number.” Fine I say, when can you relocate the service? I am told the relocation will take up to 7 working days.
Wishful thinking, after the expiry of this period, I call Telkom one again, only to be told that the relocation can take up to 21 working days not including weekends.
DAY 16, I get an SMS arranging a morning appointment, enter @yes or @no. I sms my acceptance. D-Day arrives, beginning with an early morning sms addressed to Dear Customer, ‘a Telkom technician has been dispatched to install your telephone line for your order today, your continued support is appreciated.‘
By mid-morning I am beginning to not appreciate. By midday I am positively livid. Then I receive a mobile call from the “technician”, a person apparently contracted by the company to install my line. ‘I was at your address in Woodstock this morning’ he says, all Gung ho. “You weren’t there.” I explain that he has attempted to reinstall my line at my old address, and that I am in Muizenberg not Woodstock. “That’s the order I got. Its a totally different area he says.” I tell him that his company appears retarded. He puts down the phone and I don’t get an opportunity to question him as to why he didn’t call first thing in the morning. I suspect that he is simply happy to get paid a call-out fee without doing any work, a new loophole being exploited by outside contractors, that are also rife in the insurance industry.
Thus at the end of the day I receive yet another Dear Customer SMS, assuring me that a technician has been dispatched, no such luck, except for the lucky fellow who has now probably billed the company twice.
DAY 17 AM, I call Telkom, am once again asked by a machine to enter the number I am calling about and also my 13 digit ID number, only to have to repeat this information verbally to the operator, before being referred to another person for assistance. I barely have time to repeat all the information once again, before my mobile phone cuts out, victim of diminishing finances.
What strikes me is how the supposed digital sophistication of the company is turning out to be a highly complicated, analog affair, as if kilometres of copper cable would need to be hauled from one suburb to the next, merely to accommodate a simply change of address. The same obfuscation is apparent in the world of plumbing where a simple hot water geyser, basically a large kettle, is turned by a trick of the imagination, into an ancient steam engine necessitating the attendance of a team of engineers in the minds of the victims of the charlatans of the profession.
Walking on the street on the way to recharge my mobile, I notice a man working on a Telkom cable box. I ask him what he is doing, apparently he is an apprentice. Soon a technician arrives in a van. I relate my tale of woe. He asks if I have the order number. He makes a note and takes down my mobile number. He says in all likelihood the other technician won’t get paid. Will he help me?
There was a time when Telkom was a purely analog company, replete with switch boards and physical switching of calls. One could call an operator to place a collect call, while the post office handled telegrams, the antecedent of email and sms. Then the Internet and the Information Age arrived. Instead of rebooting, the company carried on providing copper cable, assured of its monopoly on telephony, a mantra of the volkscapitalisme under the old National Party, a socialist status quo which continued under the ANC, only to see wireless operators and the invariable march of progress and free enterprise, beat it to the punch in terms of sheer numbers.
South Africa has a history of late adoption of technology and, aside from cellular, Telkom is no exception. After killing off Internet dialup services the company begrudgingly offered broadband in 2005, some 20 years after the technology and the Internet had caught on in the West. For two decades the only form of Internet enjoyed by South Africans was thus to be had via Internet Cafes and exorbitant cellular contracts that really take the joy away from surfing. Then Telkom shifted into wireless and also listed on the JSE, an example of a ‘hybrid SOE’ with both government and private investors, punting hybrid technology while seeking to compete with the new wave of optical networks. As I write this, there are now various offerings of fibre cable by the three big mobile operators, (Cell C, MTN, Vodacom) and all are pretty expensive in comparison to copper. So far as price is concerned, Telkom’s offering is cheaper by yards. Technology such as G-Fast has extended the lifespan of copper.
The cost of delaying the inevitability of the Information Age, and the need for competition, has been a loss of economic activity and productivity that spans a generation. For South Africans champing at the bit, it is the ANC and SOE Minister Lynne Brown who needs to take responsibility. Like the Nat Minister who famously opposed the introduction of Television, Brown has consistently punted the anti-technology, anti-Internet views of the labour-left coalition governing the country, at the same time as claiming to be rolling out services, part of the talk left, walk right approach which has dogged the party. (Who can trust the party these days?)
While mobile networks connected consumers to the new world of Android and Google Apps, it is fibre cable which holds the promise of allowing consumers to turn into providers of information, while bringing IT capacity to small businesses seeking to compete on the international stage. South Africa’s digital economy is still in its infancy, and the cost of retarding growth for purely political and ideological reasons has demonstrated that when it comes to labour rights, one may want a dash of Marx but when it comes to a flagging economy, what you really need are economic theories based in the here and now, geared to the problems of the day, not the 19th century.
DAY 17 PM Once again I get through to an operator. According to her, my order of 1 August is not on the system, but technicians ‘were at my premises yesterday’ she says, sadly the order was, surprise surprise, cancelled. She promises to follow up, to see what happened. I tell her that aside from the internal inquiry in the company (and a potential suite for damages) I still need my service to be installed at my new address as guaranteed. Since the company is an SOE, liability is restricted. I probably still have a shot at a complaint to an Ombud, but there is precious little I can do to stop the behemoth from needlessly damaging my own business. R50 airtime later and I am once again cut off by Vodacom, which appears to eschew calls to other operator service numbers. Calling service numbers is a bit like playing slot machines in R20 increments.
Never fear, the mobile counter at Checkers offers various SIM packages with free connectivity deals, there is Vodacom’s Free Facebook connect, and a Cell C free for R12 Whatsapp deal. But no free service numbers across networks. No allowance for error on anyone’s part. Then there’s the fine print, in order to purchase a new SIM one needs to RICA the SIM, and in order to comply with the legal result of the USA Patriot Act, renamed The Democracy Act in South Africa and all resulting from a suite of post-911 global Anti-Terror and Anti-Money Laundering legislation, one needs to provide paperwork such as proof of address on the off-chance I might be spying on my government, or part of an international terrorist syndicate. If adult persons such as myself find it hard going getting connected, what about pensioners and the infirm?
The 20 year one-horse cable race provided courtesy of the ANC reminds one of the joke about flogging the dead horse. A committee has been appointed to inquire into why the dead horse is not doing its job.
DAY 18 I go into town, recharge, only to have mobile data suck my account dry. Neglected to turn it off, me bad, buy hey why is the default plan always pay, pay, pay? I get to a Telkom outlet, only to speak to a Tony Ehrenreich lookalike, replete with golfing shirt. He claims he can’t help me, since “this is a Telkom mobile outlet” and “we’re a mobile company”, but nevertheless puts me on a free line to a helpdesk. I speak to the operator, assured that my precious mobile units are not being eaten. The operator is adamant that the address where my new line is to be installed is in Woodstock not Muizenburg, I ask her if she is perhaps a foreigner? No, she says she grew up in KZN. Never been to Cape Town? No. Never studied geography? No. ‘Cape Town, its a major a metro, you should visit Muizenburg sometime, you would like it,’ I say. She duly completes yet another reorder and issues a reference number. I get home only to open my Telkom bill, to find there’s an offer of a ‘free cordless phone, our housewarming gift to you,” in fine print at the bottom of the damn thing. To receive it, I would have to apply for a relocation online. Is this all just a perverse case of reward and punishment? The corporation is punishing me for not applying for a gift, via the appropriate channels?
DAY 21 I receive yet another chummy “Dear Customer” sms, this time thanking me for ordering a telephone service for my new address. Apparently my “order” is receive attention and further communication will follow. The sms thanks me for choosing Telkom. “your service provider”
DAY 24 I am admitted to the online club of fuming Telkom users, each one with a jarring story to tell. There’s the guy whose service failed, who then upgraded to a 20mb line, expecting better service for more money, only to find he was now being billed for a service unavailable to the area he lives in, and to make matters worse, he is now blacklisted for refusing to pay up. Or the customer who got told Telkom don’t install cables in ‘black townships’ due to supposed cable theft. (whatever happened to fibre to the curb or fibre to the home?) Or the lady whose four year saga involving payments and no-service really takes the cake in terms of limited liability and refusal to abide by a government decreed service mandate, one of many election promises made by the ruling party. A litany of complaints involving failure to repair lines, even in popular metro areas. The abuse of debit orders. A culture of ineptitude and buck-passing, and abdication of responsibility.
As the Peter Principle dictates, ordinary people will always rise to their own level of incompetence. See this article on Von Mises theories on bureaucracy.
DAY 25 Am considering building my own telco. Another SMS arrives, this time with a more serious tone: Dear Client, Telkom will send a representative to your premises to fulfil your request … we have scheduled an all-day appointment for Monday. That’s right, an all-day appointment productivity sink. The company also demands various documents such as a certified copy of my ID. So much for being a loyal customer. Or perhaps they’re just concerned I may have changed my identity in the past 5 years that I’ve been getting service from them. Enough time to take those hormone shots?
South Africa only got television in 1976 thanks to apartheid and the National Party. This pattern of late-adoption of technology was repeated again under a socialist government when the ANC imposed similar tactics of isolation. Instead of unbundling Telkom, the national cable company created by the apartheid state, the party simply took up a position in the market and engaged in the kind of monopoly behaviour that East Germans experienced under Erich Honecker — in effect promoting an artificial, communications Berlin Wall which prevented South Africans from enjoying many of the technological advances of the turn of the century.
Almost 15 years after the rest of the world got broadband, however, South Africans in 2012 finally went online in a big way only to find the world had moved on. Granted, it was always possible to get a dialup account, but Telkom’s metred pricing and uncompetitive practices stifled the kind of ubiquitous Internet that is apparent in the West. Luckily the country’s experiment with mobile telecommunications tells a slightly different story. With the national cable company stuck in the past, a new world of telecommunications unleashed a parallel universe of cheap and accessible services.
Now as the world of cable and mobile converge, we have to ask, what did we miss?
While government censorship committees were deliberating on implementing a Net Kill switch and debating the possibility of a national firewall (65% of South Africans lack Internet services) you probably learnt to ration your Net usage down to a few basic services like social networking and email. But the Internet isn’t just about facebook and twitter. Here are some points to consider.
1. The Learning Revolution.
Online Audio and Video lessons on practically any subject under the Sun, with Free educational lectures on anything from midwifery to rocket science, open university seminars, online tutorials, a plethora of instructables, the world of education never had it so good. Today you can learn how to bake a cake, share food recipes, learn a new language, start a career as a computer programmer with free coding courses, literally anything which can be taught can be related via the new digital medium as a new pedagogy of multimedia transforms education from an elitist pastime to a mass-based and popular occupation entailing lifelong learning.
2. The Open Source Revolution
Remember the days when you had to pirate that copy of Windows XP? Pirate no longer, since operating systems and the software ecosystems surrounding them became free as in free beer. The open source software revolution caused by the networked world of open distribution of digital resources has resulted in plethora of free operating systems along with free applications to match. From Android to Ubuntu, the choice is no longer simply Windows or OSX.
3. The Cloud
The conceptual leap from local storage to online storage is not all that difficult. It all comes down to issues of bandwidth. With broadband being spurred on by the many international cables now landing on our shores, several different cables all capable of quadrupling bandwidth on their own, the technological need to ration bandwidth has effectively ended. While harddrive manufacturers are unveiling their latest terabyte flash drives, Cloud Storage has become all the rage. Users no longer need to download information to a harddrive but instead store this information online to be accessed whenever it is needed. One example of popular uses of cloud storage is streaming audio and video which avoids the hassle of downloads and local storage.
4. Crowdsourcing and Collaborative Culture.
This one is a real paradigm shift. Okay, so you got online, and you figured out how to social network, but do you know you can land a job anywhere in the world while remaining in the comfort of your home? Because the Net allows us to communicate instantaneously with any part of the globe, the possibilities for online collaboration and distance work are endless. The labour market is thus free to go wherever it is needed. One benefit is crowdsourcing for example, Mechanical Turk and Ushahidi who focus on small jobs and creating digital maps respectively. Other examples are the relocation of call-centres dues to VOIP. Practically any service imaginable can be offered in this way.
5. Post Scarcity and the Internet of Things
The rapid advances in technology caused by the Internet have fundamentally altered our economic systems. From just-in-time print-on-demand publishing in which items like printed books and posters are made, but only as orders come in, to 3D printing in which objects one would normally buy at a store are printed on your desktop instead of being made in factories, the revolution that will put China on your desktop and fundamentally alter the way things are made and distributed continues apace.
6. The End of Money
The Internet has not only changed the way we think about money, it has altered our perception of value and created a world in which the only real commodity is our attention span. Whether it is the world of micropayments, Paypal or Flattr, or just the freedom of being able to sell stuff online via Gumtree or eBay, the entire global economy has been transformed and in a relatively short period of time. Increasingly Internet users are conceiving of money as software, the result is crypocurrencies like bitcoin, alternative economic systems like time-banking, Circle of Gifts, and the Talent Exchange, and veritable host of virtual currencies.
7. The Maker Revolution
Amateur robotics and home electronics is proceeding apace as the Arduino platform inspires a host of “makers” to create DIY projects such as the popular Raspberry Pi computer. Anything that can be automated will be and this is bound to impact on human labour as the more menial tasks in society become the domain of robotics. If you can Do it Yourself, life has never been better with an Internet that caters to the DIY home enthusiast, whether it is making home solar power, building log cabins or growing your own food, someone on the Net has a solution.