We Are Slaves To Our SIM Cards

secure phone

You are not free. You only think you are. Which is exactly the way the telcos like it. But deep down, we know that we are slaves to our SIM cards. Our SIM cards are the leash with which our dear telcos have managed to keep us in line for this long.

Subscribing to a mobile network provider in Nigeria is something out of a psych thriller, like one of those abusive relationships that you just can’t seem to get out of, no matter how badly you’re hurt. We’re always complaining about how bad this or that telco is but it never takes us long to get over it. Until the next screw up…then we start ranting again.

Usually, things aren’t this complicated. When brands screw up, people just dump them and move on to to the next one who serves them better or treats them nicer. But with telcos, it’s a bit different. In these parts, just after your name, your phone number is probably the next most important bit of personal information you possess. When something about you is that important, you generally don’t get into the habit of changing it arbitrarily or frequently. Thus, regardless of whether people are happy or not, the subscriber churn rate of telcos will probably be significantly lower, relative to other service industries.

The telcos are having a field day simply because they know that the decision to switch providers is almost always a painful one, with instant withdrawal symptoms. Loyalty is inspired not by customer satisfaction or even fantastical promises of airplanes, but by fear. The fear of losing your identity. The fear of starting all over again.  For many, the tedious process of re-acquainting their friends and family, business contacts, bank, government, the web…with their new mobile identity is just beyond them.

You might think that as the demand for voice service begins to wane and Nigeria enters the era of data and broadband, email addresses , Twitter handles and even BB pins (yes, BlackBerry pins) might slowly begin to usurp the role of mobile phone numbers as primary human identifiers. But that isn’t likely to be the case. If anything, current national and industry pushes in mobile money and cashless society initiatives will keep us in the thrall of our SIM cards, seeing as the individual phone number, for identification and authentication purposes, as well as for access to the lowest common denominator in Nigerian demography, is the base upon which the whole system is built.

Then there is that obscure messiah policy that we have long anticipated, the coming of number portability, for years now. But it’s still no more than a mirage in a hot desert. The popular theory is that the local telcos whose interests will suffer the most damage — mass subscriber flight — are doing everything they can to delay its coming, if not prevent it altogether. Indeed, if number portability were to come into play, I sincerely doubt that even the promise of personal airplanes will stanch the inevitable customer haemorrhage. It would be like 2003 all over again, when Glo came onto the Nigerian mobile scene and broke the reigning per minute billing hegemony that had hitherto been in place, to resounding acclaim by grateful subscribers, and of course, the chagrin of existing players who had been making outsize returns off the current billing system and had no intentions of implementing per second tarrifs at that point in time.

Love them or hate them, but as far as I can see, we’re still stuck with our SIM cards, and by extension, our dear telcos. For curiousity’s sake however, would you switch mobile providers if you could still keep your phone number with the new one?

[images - via Flickr/Pat Joyce & Wayan Vota]

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  • http://www.victorasemota.com/ Victor Asemota

    You should have just changed the title to “We are slaves to MTN” as you have given them more punches in the article than others.

    The truth is that there has always been choice but the reason we remain is that networks like MTN have built the critical mass to make on-net calls cheaper than others and that is where the real issue is. The problem is with interconnect rates and not number portability as all networks are equally bad.

    I have Glo, Etisalat and MTN numbers and each one serves a purpose because they all have their strengths in different areas. I think MNP is overrated hype as the guys in Ghana who ported away from MTN have started porting back in droves as they have found that the grass on the other side is even more coarse but just looks green from a distance.

  • http://twitter.com/MrBankole Bankole Oluwafemi

    You’re right, they’ve all got issues. That’s why I’m to subscribed to four mobile networks. But I can’t help noticing how embarking on multimillion Naira promos appears to be a cheaper marketing alternative than simply investing in better infrastructure and service. And MTN certainly isn’t the only culprit in this wise.

  • Paul

    @Asemota they are all guilty of poor service to nigerians but MTN sure is the biggest culprit. With the current airplane promo they must sure think Nigerians stupid. Their greatest saviour so far is the delay of number portability. You can never believe anything MTN says about their various subscription plans cos one way or the other you get screwed. Bankole has got this right

  • http://www.victorasemota.com/ Victor Asemota

    Let us take the sentiment out of this and look at it dispassionately. The SIM cards are everywhere now and an overwhelming majority of people have more than one phone line. If MTN alone was really that bad the market dynamics would have long forced them out. They may be messing up in some aspects but providing value in others and that is why they remain strong while others trail them in numbers. Number portability is not a silver bullet and it will not change anything much if all players have the same infrastructure issues. What is required is adequate consumer protection by the regulator who should enforce service quality benchmarks and not let bad behaviour go with merely a slap on the wrists. The consumer is also lazy and consistently lives within low expectations because they dont know any better. It is easier to just complain than vote with your pocket and it is the same reason we still have bad government.