Data Roaming Woes

This post is pretty longas it has about 8 months worth info in it.

The past 8 months have been pretty interesting (or annoying), I’ve been bouncing up and down with one of the local mobile operators in South Africa regarding an error on my data roaming bill. I’m not sure if I should mention the companies name yet or not, as the case is still currently open (I am tempted to though).

I know quite a lot of people have received huge shocks on their bill when data roaming, it is no doubt expensive. As it turns out though, telco’s can and do sometimes make mistakes with their billing. The problem is, without any sort of technical knowledge, you’re most likely going to land up paying the bill, as the telco will not really look into the validity of each and every line item.

Fortunately, I have an awesome network of colleagues, who are in the field. All of whom have been able to look at the details of the bill and see that there are some technical irregularities that need further clarification.

What is really interesting in all of this, is the repeated attempts from the telco and the service provider whom we have a contract with, to bully us into paying the account. For 8 months, we have repeatedly sent information proving the technical impossibilities of the case. Yet, they seem to come back with the same generic responses without actually responding to our main concerns…. One such example is the possible manipulation of dates in emails chains to make the responses seem more relevant… which was quite shocking.

In July our service provider called up and insisted that the telco had verified the charges are correct and as such payment needs to be made, as the case has been pending for 8 months. When we asked our service provider to send us the official response from the network in July, she forwarded us an email with the telco’s reponse. The forwarded email was the same response we received back in March, to which we had responded with a list of questions for clarification (no response was received).

The email chain had three parts:
1) Her opening statement saying “please see the response below from the network representitive” (this was dated July 16th)
2) The middle part of the mail was the response from the network, which did not have any date, but was a copy and paste from an email that was sent through to us previously on March 5th.
3) The bottom bit of the email chain was a request from her manager to network to “provide clarification on our dispute” this was request was dated July 15th

It is quite alarming that service providers can resort to such tactics in order to force payment from unsuspecting clients. I do wonder how many people have been forced into making payments that were incorrect.

Here are the details of the actual dispute….

In December ’08 – I was roaming with a South African sim card in the UAE. On December 23rd we received an itimised bill for an amount around R4,000 – this was alright as the data roaming charges are ridiculously priced… around R175 per MB.

On January 16th, we were sent an updated bill…. with one additional line item, for the value of around R61,000 (crazy, I know). Which stated that the one line item had +-430 megabytes of data downloaded during that session (on a mobile phone).

After sending through the calculations numerous times, the reply we received from the network was that:

The calculations were made by Mr. Minty and he does not have any knowledge or training on how the telco rates or bills data”

I had no idea we needed to present our credentials through to a telco in order to dispute a case. Thats some great customer services for you. After checking the calculations with various experts, they all do agree, that the calculations are valid.

The funny thing, the contact at the telco who is dealing with us, has his profile up on linkedin. He is hardly qualified to talk about data roaming and calculations, he lists his strengths as Call Centre Management, CRM Management, Vendor Management and few others. None of which are related to any technical analysis of data…. You have to love social media 😉

I know that no download happened, as I was asleep at the time. The call data logs on my device (which I had for a 6 months before the event) show a total data usage of only 138MB. The itimised bill does not have any time stamp on the actual duration of the session, if I was to look at the next line item in the bill, the time duration between the two incidents is around 6 hours. I also serioulsy doubt that the battery of the device would have lasted for 6 hours with an active GPRS connection.

Essentially, I would have needed to download 430 megabytes on a Nokia N82 devices in 6 hours. After doing some research, it turns out, the network I was roaming on, only has a GPRS roaming agreement with the foreign network in the UAE. Call centres from both networks have confirmed that the roaming agreement means that the maximum data speed I could receive at any time would be a GPRS connection. The foreign network confirmed that the speed of their GPRS network is 48kilobits/second

So, if I was to assume that I was able to receive the maximum possible bandwidth (48kbps) it would have taken me around 21 hours to download 441 megabytes.

The calulation I used was as follows:
48 kilobits per second = 0.005859375 megabytes per second
0.005859375 * 60 seconds (one minute) = 0.352 megabytes per minute
0.352 megabytes per minute * 60 (one hour) = 21 megabytes per hour

So in 6 hours I would have been able to download 126 megabytes (6*21)
And in 21 hours I will be able to download 441 megabytes

The response from the network to the calculations was:

Perhaps this example can explain better; you open your email and you establish a connection with your email ISP or server. Your inbox starts to update and every bit of information has a data size and gets downloaded to your device in packets of varying size as and when a timeslot is available. So, whilst your email is updating, you decide to check out the news and you open your browser. As soon as this happens, whatever you see is updated which again is data sent.

The key point that they have missed, is that the total maximum bandwidth thats available is 48kbps. So, the data rates will be split in order to suit the amount of web applications that are running. So I could be downloading a file, opening email and browsing 5 different websites, the bottom line is that everything will take very long to load as I only have 48kbps available.

I also looked at the average data speed for the 3 data sessions that happened prior to the event happening.

Here are the calculations for the average speeds:
Session One (Line Item 75 and 76):
Between 23:23:59 and 23:33:33
Total Possible Time between items in Seconds: 574 seconds
Total Data used: 113,483 bytes

Average Data Speed: 197.7 bytes per second

Session Two (Line Item 74 and 75)
Between: 23:33:33 and 00:04:51
Total Possible Time between items in Seconds: 1,878 seconds
Total Data used: 311,989 bytes

Average Data Speed: 166.13 bytes per second

Session Three (Line Item 73 and 74)
Between: 00:04:51 and 00:12:58 (under dispute)
Total Possible Time between items in Seconds: 487seconds
Total Data used: 338,578 bytes

Average Data Speed: 695.23 bytes per second

Total Average Data Speed = 353.02 bytes per second

Based on the average speed, it would have taken me around 350 hours to download 430 megabytes of data.

According to the network:

You can not calculate average data speeds, as there are numerous factors that effect the data speeds. As such the calculation is not valid

As far as I know, if I download 10MB of data in 10seconds, I can assume that my average speed was 1MB/s

The main arguement from the South African network is that the CDRs are correct. When we requested them to provide us with more detail, to look at the actual time duration of the event (EDR, VLR etc.) they were unable to do so, as the foreign network has not supplied them with the information to date. They also do not have any record of the IMEI number for the device that was supposedly used.

When asked regarding the technical possibility of downloading the content, the response is that in theory on 3G/HSDPA it is possible to download that much data, in the specified time frame, as the minimum guarantee of speeds is GPRS. The telco conveniently ignores the confirmed email correspondence from the foreign network that clearly states it is a GPRS connection.

The final statement from the network is that our claim is against the foreign network, we should get the info ourselves.

Either way, the lesson learnt: Do not roam with data and if you do need to roam and you receive a big bill, be sure to go through all the line items to make sure you’re not been charged for an event that did not happen. I must warn you though, dont expect to receive any sort of concern or love from your network (especially certain ones in South Africa).

We even had a face to face meeting with the telco, I was out of the country so could not attend. The telco threw out technical terms, trying to catch my dad off guard. When my dad offered to call me to discuss technical issues, they refused to speak to me over the phone because as they put “he is the one who caused all of these problems.” The meeting eventually ended with the telco saying there is nothing more to discuss, and getting up and walking out.

The case has been put forward to ICASA, the governing body in South Africa. We’ve also consulted our lawyers, all of whom were equally as shocked at the way in which the service provider and telco have responded to our concerns. I’ll keep you posted on the final outcome of this.


13 thoughts on “Data Roaming Woes

  1. safdar mustafa says:

    Frankly it’s just plain shocking for a Telco to behave in such a way. Calculations look correct so i dont understand how the Telco can argue with that.

  2. R61,000? How shocking? your calcs looks alright. But the telco’s stupid response is all too common, they don’t expect people to dig into what they say. I’ve respect for some telcos i dealt with before, who stopped charging altogether saying they didn’t have a system to calculate the costs so have the service for free, for now.

  3. Another operator who won’t admit to making a mistake.

    Your calculations look sound to me, it’s *impossible* given the connection used and the time frame on the bill. It sounds like the Operator is just playing the bully and throwing their weight around. Keep up the fight – they’re in the wrong not you!

  4. As an amateur journalist, my advice will be to take this to the press. Big companies rip off the man on the street on a regular basis, and they will continue doing it if not challenged…

  5. Dam Telcos! glad I dont work for one, technically. Dude keep up the fight. I think the Telco will probably just settle with you eventually. Good luck!

  6. Zak P says:

    This is insane!! Cant the telcos see the data. Youve shown them that its impossible with that bandwidth!!
    Calculations looks proper from your side. The mobile operators really need to get their act together. They dont even have proper details (ie times, imei numbers)

  7. M Raiman says:

    This is a classic case of corporate bullying. Customer service in south africa is generally appalling and the telecoms industry is by far the leader in this. They capatalise both on consumer ignorance and their monopoly on the industry. If they “mistakenly” add just 1 cent to each call of each of their millions of unsuspecting users, at the end of the day it adds up to a huge amount that somebody is benefitting from.

    I would love to know the name of this company. In fact I think you should go public with the matter. The one issue is the error, the second is what seems to be their poor handling of the matter – an almost disdainful and belligerent arrogance where the consumer means little to them. But the power is in the hands of the consumer – so let it be known to all. Hey, I might be with the same company (and Im due upgrades on both my contracts soon), worse still I may have shares in the company!

    I had an issue with my bank as well after a clear error on their part which cost me a bit.. after much haggling and ultimately a threat to take the matter to the financial ombudsman they finally admitted their error, apologised and refunded me in full.

  8. zubairhabib says:

    People often complain about the civil service, but this experience shows that the private sector is not much better.
    PLEASE tell us which companies you were dealing with, I am always keen to avoid companies with
    A) Bad ethics
    B) Deficient competence
    C) Dismissive service

    This is bull! I dont know if it because we’re a developing nation that we are assumed to be more docile in accepting C grade products and services.
    I’m so very very glad that you have taken this matter further to trailblaze the way for others.

  9. What an impossible situation! Essentially all I can see is that the telco’s are forcing you to have this battle with only a lowly call centre agent on their end who has no technical expertise to justify the case on their behalf or make any sense at all. The arguments used are so childish it’s laughable. In the age of social media I hope a story like this does spread because it will give them a swift kick up the arse from a PR point of view and know that the consumer has the power now. Bloody idiots.

    I think you should name them. Say it Loudly, Tweet it, get it Retweeted and Facebooked. Is this on facebook btw? I’d like to share it…

    Needless to say, WE can not allow them to win this. Please don’t pay them anything… let it slip… when they want this to go to court or wherever they;ll have to face a situation like McDonalds did with their environmentalist lawsuit and they’ll wish they never made their case in the first place.

    Aarghh… this really irks me.

  10. TAAHIR says:

    Oh man that’s horrible, who is the company, I think we should all be weary of the companies and exercise consumer power and avoid using companies that disregard the plain obvious in order to safe guard their “systems” I am certain you would find more aggrieved customers, may a class action law suit is in order.


  11. Z Laher says:

    I would love to know the name of the company. Secondly I think you should go public with the matter. Banish their name to the press.
    Contact the ombudsman and consumer protection board.
    What irks me is the disdain and unwillingness to act reasonably:
    First issue is the error,
    the second is the unprofessional manner it was handled.
    I, several friends and family members are up for renewal on cell phone contracts. I would like to avoid similair circumstances or associate with a firm that does not practice fair trade. Please tell me which companies you are dealing with – I would like to avoid them.

  12. riyaadm says:

    thanks for the response! i am tempted to post the names of the companies up here… i’m just waiting to see how things progress this week.

    on a positive note though, I had a chat with one of the network engineers at the network in question, who confirmed the calculations were valid and its technically impossible to happen. he also checked the roaming agreement with the foreign network, they confirmed again its only gprs. i also called up the foreign network again to verify the data speeds/agreement, they confirmed my details.

    it seems the bottle neck is with the staff who dont understand their own agreements or how their networks actually work…. or maybe they do know, they’re just trying their luck in a hope we will accept it without questioning.

    at this point it seems to be boiling down to pride, the account manager at the telco seems pretty arrogant and not the type to admit he made a mistake… the service provider may have their own problems with changing dates in the emails…. so its going to be interesting to see how they move forward without any valid information.

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