Connect the dots

Monday, April 16, 2012

Can You Hear Me Now?

 Subscriber dissatisfaction

Unlike anywhere else in the world (at least where we've been already) mobile phone service has never been more restricted and expensive! Go to West Africa and you have at least 3-4 companies from which to choose prepaid services. Even Ethiopia's single nationalized mobile phone service is more affordable despite the hassle of having to submit a photo and your passport information to a telecommunications office. As a foreigner, you are not privy to the $200 local SIM card, which apparently was at least $1000 only a year ago. Instead, the only kind of prepaid service you're entitled to is a $20 SIM for your GSM phone. Local phone calls are $0.30/minute and international calls are $1.00/minute! Don't even bother to ask how you can get more airtime when it runs out because it's not possible. Once you've run out, you'll need to buy a new card with a brand new number. And on top of that, the card is only valid for 28 days, exactly the maximum amount of time your visa entitles you to stay anyway! We purchased one to see if we could use it to call ahead for hotel reservations, but in reality it only really worked (and I'm being generous) 50% of the time. Usually, I would get a network busy message or if I did finally get through, I would get disconnected after a minute. Was it really worth having? Not really. Most calls can be made at the hotel reception or a travel agency. They know the hassle and inability for foreigners to make mobile phone calls so they're usually happy to do it for you. In a way, it was nice to not see people everywhere with cell phones and when sitting in a restaurant you heard more two-sided conversations instead of ones where you had to make up the answers to the questions being asked. Here, you make a plan before you part ways and if you're late or can't show up, well,  the other party can wait or just eventually leave. Big cities like Yangon lack public phones and locals must pay to use private lines on the sidewalks. Even in the most remote and rural areas of West Africa, there were cell phone towers. Not in Myanmar. It remains trapped in a time that many of us have already forgotten when we were less ruled by convenient (or maybe from another perspective, constraining) technology.

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