About 17 years ago, in the early days of the Cellular phone business in Zambia, network service providers dictated how long your airtime would be available. Whenever you bought airtime, no matter how much, it would expire after a designated number of days. In fact, if you stopped buying airtime to make calls, your Sim Card would be blocked, no need to mention that at that stage in technology, a Sim Card was as expensive as a cell phone itself.
This criminality was identified and fixed immediately to protect mobile subscribers from exploitation. Today, you can lose your phone with K2 airtime in it, and take months to replace the Sim Card, but your K2 will not go anywhere. We are 17 years behind when it comes to Internet data bundles in this country, because the same thing is happening. This is the status quo that the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority has failed to change. ZICTA is asleep while Internet data service providers take turns molesting poor subscribers.
We are glad that the National Assembly has adopted a motion to abolish this expiration of Internet data bundles. When Nalikwanda UPND member of parliament Professor Geoffrey Lungwangwa moved the motion, the rest of the House overwhelmingly rose in support of the proposal, arguing that it was unfair for service providers to continue snatching data from customers who were unable to utilise their bundles before the date of expiration.
“Mr Speaker, Service providers have segmented their data provision along the following time frames; daily, weekly, 90 days, 180 days and 365 days. In other words, if I buy five gigabytes of Internet data for a week and I use only two gigabytes, the remaining bundles will expire at the end of the one week time frame. The question is who benefits from that data which I haven’t used? The answer is the provider is the beneficiary because the unused data can be sold to another client,” Prof Lungwangwa told the House.
This criminality cannot be explained any better than it was by the learned professor. Where does the rest of the unused data go? Why do our data bundles expire while the provider keeps our money without it losing value? Let’s face it: criminals are not only in government. These corporate institutions in the name of MTN, Airtel, Zamtel, Vodafone, Hai, Liquid Telecom have been allowed to steal from subscribers in broad daylight for a very long time.
Why should we be forced to consume our Internet data bundles within a fixed number of days? Why should we be made to go into overdrive watching videos and downloading things a day before the bundle expires? Why should we lose Gigabytes and Gigabytes of data and money to Internet providers?
The main functions of money are distinguished as: a medium of exchange, a unit of account or store of value. That means that any item or verifiable received as a purchase must carry the same value of the quantity of currency used in the exchange. Therefore if cash is kept unused, deliberately or otherwise, for a month, it cannot lose its value. Data bundles are money. We pay good money for Internet data and we deserve to consume it whenever, wherever and however we want. It must be a fair exchange of value for value.
What shocked us from the Parliament debate on this motion was the revelation by the Minister of Communications Honourable Mutotwe Kafwaya, who told the House that in fact, ZICTA did a survey in 2017 to address the consumer concerns, which showed that a larger percentage of the population that uses Internet data never exhausts the bundles before they expire. Why, then, has ZICTA not done anything about this? Why has the Ministry of Communications that had access to this report been sleeping since 2017 when evidence of this exploitation was established?
This is very shameful. Institutions that are charged with the responsibility to protect consumers must never go to sleep. When people complain, these institutions must stand up and intervene. In fact, they should not wait for people to complain, they should do their own investigations and impose sanctions against bad business practices.
It is not only the Internet data providers who have been stealing from subscribers by dictating the expiration of similar services provided. Multi-Choice has been doing the same thing with its Box Office services. They make subscribers rent movies at K19.50 to watch within 48 hours, after which it expires until you pay the same amount again for another 48 hours.
Is this not theft? By the way, this Box Office service is sold at this extra cost to a subscriber who has already paid about K1,000 for a month’s premium subscription with extra view. Are these not pompwe manners? Where are the consumer protectors? Snoring!