Dear @Afrihost, it’s time to part ways

We’ve been in Israel for almost three years now and I think it’s safe to say we won’t require Afrihost’s services any longer. I decided it’s time to part ways with our former ISP and unsubscribe from Gian’s emails.

I scrolled down Gian’s latest email about how Openserve will only charge me R2,850 for fibre installation from 1 August. I’m a bit out of touch with Internet access costs in SA but at least they have fibre access. Still, I doubt Openserve will install where we live so I found the link to unsubscribe.

Afrihost unsubscribe link

I clicked on the link, taking Gian at his word that doing this would unsubscribe me altogether. I was hopeful that this would work as well as their ADSL service back in South Africa (at least back in 2014).

Unfortunately things didn’t quite work out as I had hoped.

I guess we'll email again?

While we had good times together, I think it’s time that we part ways, Afrihost. We’ve moved on (literally) and while we’d love to have fibre Internet access too, I just don’t think you can help us all the way here.

So, if you could remove me from your mailing list, that would be great. You can get in touch with me on Twitter and we can say our goodbyes there.

Featured image credit: Mathyas Kurmann

Unpacking MTN’s misleading “uncapped” data bundle

I just came across a bizarre story on EWN, “The terms of MTN’s uncapped data explained”, in which MTN’s Chief Customer Experience Officer, Eddie Moyce, explains MTN’s activation requirement for its time-based and misleading “uncapped” data bundle. Granted, I am not really familiar with MTN’s data bundles anymore but this sounds like a consumer trap. Here is the radio segment:

Basically, even though you have paid for the bundle, you still need to activate it by dialling a short-code which you receive by a SMS. If you don’t activate the bundle, you will use data at normal data rates and could wind up with a larger bill than you expected.

Two aspects of this story puzzle me:

1. Why offer this sort of “uncapped” bundle that the customer still needs to activate in order to use it, even after paying for it?

This is really misleading where most data bundles activate automatically when you have paid for them and the changes propagate across the network, don’t they?

It seems to me that MTN intentionally created this activation mechanism knowing that many customers won’t actually realise they need to do it and will wind up paying far more. I checked the terms and conditions that apply to this package (I think – the MTN site is not exactly designed to find information easily) and it says the following:

  1. Activation of the MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundles

5.1 Customers may purchase an MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundle by dialing 1412#.

5.2 Customers must activate the MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundle after purchase, by dialing 1415#. The MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundle does not automatically activate .

5.3 Customers may only activate the MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundle if they have sufficient airtime in their airtime account or using their usage limit (for My MTNChoice customers). This excludes MTN Loyalty 1–4–1 Loyalty Points and any promotional airtime.

Cruising_or_speeding__Get_a_data_bundle_that_fits_your_lifestyle___Word_on_the_street

Bear in mind that this seems to be a data bundle that is “valid for a period of 24 (twenty four) hours”, although only “after it is activated”. I also wonder how many people are aware of when the data bundle kicks in? How many people assume (and reasonably so) that the package kicks in automatically and they start using the data right away?

As far as the seemingly reasonable SMS from MTN with activation instructions goes, my experience handling mobile services complaints tells me that many people ignore SMS messages they receive for various reasons and may not notice the significance of an activation message until long after their bill has hit triple digits.

This activation mechanism looks a lot like the dodgy tactics mobile content providers used to use before they were banned: automatically subscribing consumers to expensive content (think R5 or R7 per day until cancelled) subscription services without clear double opt-in mechanisms and pricing information. Just because this is a major mobile network, doesn’t mean they should be allowed to use these deceptive tactics.

2. If the bundle is uncapped, why impose a “fair use value” cap of 150MB? That is tiny.

Then, to add to this, the notion that a bundle with a “fair use value” cap of 150MB is somehow an “uncapped” data bundle is ridiculous. That is a tiny amount of data when you consider that, as Eddie Moyce put it, people tend to buy these packages for specific reasons. One of those reasons would be that the customer needs to use a lot more data than his or her usual bundle allows (at least, cost effectively) in a short time period.

Here is an extract from the terms and conditions dealing with the “Fair Use Policy”:

9.1.4 Customers with an active MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundle shall be able to generate uncapped data usage, however, a fair use value/threshold as detailed in the table in clause 4 above will apply for the duration of the Validity Period.

9.1.5 Should the Customer exhaust the fair use value, as detailed in the table in clause 4 above, before the end of the Validity Period, the Customer’s data speeds will be reduced to 128kbps for the remainder of the Validity Period and the Fair Use Policy shall detailed in this clause 9 shall apply.

9.1.6 MTN further reserves the right to implement other measures and controls to ensure that the integrity of its systems is maintained, including but not limited to measures such as DPI (Deep Packet Inspection). DPI:

9.1.6.1 allows MTN to monitor aspects including, but not limited to, non-compliance with its Fair Use Policy and restricted protocols, prevent attacks from computer viruses/worms and identify SPAM. Such usage may be blocked or re-routed;

9.1.6.2 also allows MTN to throttle certain usage, such as peer to peer traffic;

9.1.6.3 shall also allow MTN to prioritize/filter certain activities, such as VoIP traffic, over other activities which are burdensome on the MTN network (such as video streaming);

9.1.6.4 in essence, this allows MTN to alleviate network congestion and improve service to all MTN customers.

9.1.7 This Fair Use Policy may be amended by MTN, whether by clarifying, modifying, adding to or deleting certain terms and conditions. This is subject to the Modification of Terms and Conditions, including notice being provided to you, as detailed in clause 16 below.

Not only does the available data speed slow to 128kbps when you hit that measly 150MB but MTN also imposes a series of restrictions on how you can use the data and when. The end result is that your “uncapped” data bundle is more like a “you can’t do much with this ISDN-like connection but thanks for paying anyway” bundle.

Oh, and the fact that MTN hides all these restrictions and qualifications in terms and conditions which few consumers will ever read, are couched in fairly dense language and presented in pale text on a white background that no-one over 45 can read without squinting says a lot too.

Website_legal

One more thing

Oh, by the way, this package isn’t available for “commercial use” so don’t think you are allowed to use this package to give your small business a little boost either:

9.2 The MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundles are intended for consumer use only. This means that the MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundles may not be used for commercial use (which includes, but is not limited to the intention of promoting, enabling, subscribing to, selling (directly or indirectly) the goods, services or image of any person pursuing a commercial, industrial, craft, religious, charitable or political activity or exercising a regulated profession).

9.3 The MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundles exclude use of the following services:

9.3.1 Least Call Routing (LCR);

9.3.2 Routing devices; and/or

9.3.3 Commercial use.

9.4 Use of the above services shall be deemed abuse and/or fraudulent use of the MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundles and shall entitle MTN to immediately suspend and/or deactivate the Customer’s access to the MTN 1 Day Uncapped Internet Bundles.

So if you are a small business owner and you happened to buy this bundle and use it as part of your business (you could have sent a data message to a client telling them about your services, for example), you would be committing a fraud in addition to breaching the terms and conditions of the bundle. Talk about hostile to small business!

Just more frustration

This was meant to be a quick post but the more I read the angrier I became. I’ve clearly been out of the country for too long and far too accustomed to my current mobile service which includes 5 000 minutes of calls, 5 000 SMS messages, 10GB of data a month and 500 minutes of calls to my family in SA (landlines in SA) for the equivalent of about R200 per month.

I’m sure the economics in SA are different to here in Israel but why couldn’t MTN offer a simpler option that just let’s people pay their R40 for either a fixed amount of data or a realistic “fair use value” cap? Drop this silly activation mechanism and the ridiculous fine print. In other words, give people what they think they are getting or, if that is more than you want to offer, offer them something you are comfortable with and that makes sense to consumers.

Featured image credit: Pixabay, released under a CC0 Dedication

Skype isn’t really down

You probably noticed that Skype seemed to be offline today. It turns out that the service is only partially down. The central issue seems to be that status indicators aren’t working properly so your contacts seem to be offline even though you can still message them. According to Skype’s blog post titled “Skype presence issues“:

Affected users will not be able to change their status, their contacts will all show as offline and they will be unable to start Skype calls to them.

Instant messages are still being delivered as usual. The status issue also doesn’t affect Skype for Web, which can be used to make calls and send instant messages.

It looks like messaging works.

Update (2015-09-21): Not everyone is convinced by Skype’s explanation:

This is certainly the only time Skype has been down that I can remember.

Update (2015-09-22): The issue seems to have been resolved.

Image credit: touch-tone by vistavision, licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Who needs a phone number when you have Skype?

I decided to explore VoIP options a few years ago and I was fairly excited about Skype Numbers for a while and subscribed. That gave me a local landline number which, when called, connected the caller to me through Skype. In theory it is a great idea but I found that the latency on the calls was terrible. It was about 2 seconds but it was noticeable and made voice calls painful so I abandoned the idea.

I’ve started thinking about alternatives to a regular phone number again lately and came back to Skype Numbers. I wonder if the increases in bandwidth have reduced the latency or if it is still so noticeable? Is it possible to give up a landline (or even a mobile line) and switch entirely to VoIP with notional landline numbers for legacy callers?

This idea reminds me a bit of the recently announced Microsoft Lync successor, Skype for Business:

As much as I love FaceTime and prefer the idea of Hangouts to Microsoft options, Skype is still a pretty decent experience and I keep coming back to it for video meetings with clients. Maybe its time to try Skype Numbers again?

Frustrated thoughts about broadband and road traffic

I found myself stuck in traffic this morning on my way to a meeting and frustrated with the amount of time wasted on the road and how better and more reliable broadband could be a huge productivity boost. I basically found myself thinking about a similar issue I ranted about a year and a half ago.

This time I thought I’d record my thoughts (I was driving after all):

I debating the merits of shifting some meetings to video calls with the person I was driving to meet and she emphasised the value of getting out and connecting with the person you are meeting with in a physical space. I am all for both but all this driving leads to massive time drains and additional stress. There must be a better balance (or meetings should be scheduled for off-peak times).

Jitsi – a Skype alternative worth exploring

I’ve been looking for a Skype alternative for a while (good to have options, especially if Skype is really part of the Evil Empire and shouldn’t be trusted) and Jitsi looks like a feasible option. It uses the XMPP protocol for IM and chat (this is the underlying protocol for GTalk and Facebook Chat) and SIP for voice (and video?). If you use FNB Connect, you’re using SIP already (I’m using my FNB Connect account in Jitsi). TechRepublic has a short review which is worth reading:

Jitsi is written in Java for cross-platform compatibility with other operating systems. Although this can translate into a slightly sluggish experience and a rather bland user interface, the software is remarkably flexible in its own right. In addition to supporting traditional SIP for online communications, Google Talk’s protocol (XMPP) is also supported out of the box for audio and video chats as well as AIM, ICQ, Facebook, Yahoo and MSN. Jitsi also provides a means to encrypt VoIP traffic using SRTP or ZRTP encryption methods, which is something Skype doesn’t provide and is a rarity amongst most SIP / VoIP clients today.

Why would you want a Skype alternative? Well, if Skype is capturing and disclosing your conversations to 3rd parties (well, it is certainly recording our conversations), that could be a concern. Skype’s new ads are annoying at best and being required to pay for video chats with many people isn’t appealing (especially where you can have up to 10 people in a Google+ Hangout for free). An alternative that runs on open protocols (instead of proprietary ones which are opaque to privacy or security conscious people) like XMPP and SIP (which are supported by a variety of apps and services) gives you more choice. That is worth something to many people.

That said, Skype generally works pretty well, is on multiple desktop and mobile platforms and is very popular. Jitsi runs on Mac, Windows and Linux desktops but it lacks a mobile option. That space could be filled with mobile apps even if they are made by other developers (one of the appeals of protocols like XMPP and SIP) so you could replicate Skype’s relative ubiquity without relying too heavily on a proprietary (and closed) platform running a similarly proprietary protocol used by companies which may not have your interests in mind. It also has an option to record conversations in a variety of formats and that comes in handy.

I’d love it if Jitsi could interoperate with services like Google+ Hangouts but I don’t know enough about the protocols Google uses to have much of an understand to what extent this is possible. What I did notice in the TechRepublic review is that Jitsi allows users to connect directly using IPv6. Apps using open protocols like XMPP and SIP and which support IPv6 could give us even more interesting alternatives to current text, voice and video communications options.

This stuff starts to sound almost idyllic from a user control and choice perspective but “normal” people tend to use better looking and easier to use software that everyone else is using. In this case that means Skype and it works well enough for its users and they aren’t too concerned about the risks because they just aren’t all that real. Another challenge is that most open source software looks terrible. It’s as if no UX people ever work on open source software. That means people just don’t use the software. An interesting option is FaceTime which only runs on iOS and Mac OS devices. It is apparently based on some open protocols (including SIP) but because of how the service authenticates and because there is no FaceTime standard other developers can leverage, it remains a classically restricted Apple service.

Ah, the seductive VoIP telephony allure

This is our latest VoIP configuration for our new offices (which we are now moving into next Friday). I have connected my two office phones to a Linksys VoIP adapter and have configured the adapter with my FNB Connect account. The theory is that the portable phones (we have 2, 1 for me and 1 for Nastassja) can connect to FNB Connect through the Linksys adapter and give callers a single office line to call. Either of us can then pick up the incoming call. The problem is this isn’t working consistently and one issue seems to be multiple devices configured to use the same number.

Ah, the allure of modern VoIP technology. If only it actually worked consistently
VoIP options

This is a fairly frustrating work in progress and the only thing making this worth pursuing is that calls to my Skype online number are reportedly not terrific quality (soft and a little bit of an echo). Also, making calls from Skype is about twice as expensive as FNB Connect. Otherwise, Skype works on multiple devices which can be logged into the same account.