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There is a problem on the line


There is a problem on the line

While the mobile phone is king in Africa, actually using it is often a miserable experience thanks to atrocious service by providers. By Baffour Ankomah 

On 22 November, my Zimbabwean friend who wanted to have a laugh at my expense, sent me the following BBC news item: “All four of Ghana’s mobile network operators have been fined a total of $7m (£5.4m) for failing to meet benchmark service requirements.

Frequent call drops, calls taking a long time to go through, and poor sound quality were among the reasons Ghana’s National Communications Authority punished Vodafone, MTN, Glo and Airtel/Tigo. The biggest fine
of $2.4m was handed to Airtel/Tigo.”

The story went on: “Consumers have told the BBC they have faith that the sanctions will result in improved services. Worst affected are residents of rural Ghana, who even have to climb trees or walk several kilometres to find sufficient network reception to make and receive calls.”

The bit that tickled my friend is where “residents of rural Ghana” have “to climb trees or walk several kilometres to find sufficient network reception to make and receive calls”.

Of course that was an exaggeration that the BBC correspondent in Ghana, Thomas Naadi, spiced his story with to impress his editors back in London to run the piece. In fact there is no such thing as the “residents of rural Ghana” (meaning, literally all residents of rural Ghana) climbing into trees to find sufficient network reception to make and receive calls.

If there were any such thing,  Naadi himself, who is based in Accra on the southern coast, would not have travelled deep into the north of the country to find a tiny village of 50 people, two hours’ drive away from Tamale, the capital of the Northern Region.

Here, according to an earlier report by Naadi, broadcast by the BBC in mid-November, some of the residents sometimes have to climb into a tree in the centre of the village to find sufficient network reception to receive or make calls because they are too far away from the nearest mobile base station.

Please don’t get me wrong: I am not denying that such things do happen in Ghana, but they are occasional incidents, not the norm for all the ‘residents of rural Ghana’, a generalisation that suggests that all 14m or so of them have to climb into trees to receive or make calls.

Fifteen years ago, when mobile network connectivity was in its infancy in Ghana, my village had one such tree in the centre of the village where, by some magic, network connectivity was better than anywhere else in the village.

Thankfully, our people did not have to climb into the tree; they stood under its generous foliage to make or receive their calls because the nearest base station was 20 miles away and the signals were too weak by the time they reached the village.

Times have changed

But times have so changed in the last 15 years that today my village has a base station all to itself right in the village, built by MTN in 2015.

And all the villages in the district have their own base stations too, so nobody in our area has to climb into a tree or walk several kilometres to make or receive calls. In fact, most parts of the country are like that. So the exaggeration that ‘residents of rural Ghana’ have to climb into trees to make and receive calls is just that – an exaggeration!

Now let me come to my main point. The issue of poor service by telecom companies in Africa or what the Ghanaian authorities call “failing to meet benchmark service requirements” is a big one and must be stamped out by the authorities.

In this regard, I think the $7m fine imposed on the four network operators in Ghana is too little to make them feel the pinch and change their bad ways. Imagine – the biggest fine is a mere $2.4m for Airtel/Tigo, for all the sins it has committed against its clients all these years. It even compels us to pay upfront for the poor service. They call it pre-paid.

In April 2018, I went to Ghana to do some business. Months before, I had purchased an MTN 4G mobile modem that gave me excellent wifi service even in my village far away from Accra.

But in April, the MTN signals were so poor that the device would not work even in Accra, let alone outside it. As a result, I suffered walking with my laptop along the streets of Winneba at night, trying to find a spot where the MTN device could receive signals from a base station. But often to no avail.

My business was therefore seriously disrupted by MTN’s poor service, to the point where when I went back to Ghana again in August 2018, I had to buy a Vodafone 3G mobile modem as a backup. But Vodafone turned out to have an even worse wi-fi service – its modem became a complete waste of my hard-earned money.

Situation worse in Zim

I am not alone in this rip-off. Millions of customers in Ghana and beyond have similar stories to tell. As I write, the situation in Zimbabwe is no better, in fact it is worse.

Like Ghana, Zimbabwe has four network operators and, boy, you have never known such atrocious service in all your life! It would be laughable if the service were not so expensive to procure. One is therefore at a loss how the Zimbabwean authorities could allow such a crappy service to continue.

Ironically, Zimbabwe is known to have one of the most expensive telecom fee regimes in the whole world. A one-minute voice call abroad costs almost US$1, and yet the line, if it stays on at all, is so bad that you and the recipient can hardly hear yourselves. Most times the line drops after a minute or two and starts playing back your conversation.

By some irrational calculation, what led the Ghanaian authorities to act – frequent call drops, calls taking a long time to go through, and poor sound quality – has been honed into an art form by the Zimbabwean telecom companies, so much so that people don’t bother to complain any more. It is bad, dear reader. And nobody knows when a saviour will come.

Remarkably, the Zimbabwean authorities seem to be inured to it all. As such, they too don’t bother to complain or act and as you would expect, the telecom companies are getting away with murder.

But it should not be so. The whip must be cracked – all over Africa. The telecom companies must stop taking their customers for granted. And as they will not do so by themselves, they should be forced, kicking and screaming, to toe the line. Thankfully, the authorities have a massive weapon: fines. Long should they flow! NA

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Written by Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah is New African's current Editor at Large. He has spent much of his 39 years of journalism at the magazine, having served as its Assistant Editor for 6 years, Deputy Editor for 5 years, and Editor for 15 years, retiring from active service in 2014. In 39 years of his journalism career - Africa and his many causes have been his passion. His personal column, Baffour's Beefs, which has been running continuously in New African since 1987, is a big hit and a must-read for the magazine's worldwide readers. He is now based in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife Elizabeth run their own media consultancy and fashion house called "African Interest" which trades under the trademark "I am African".

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