I purchased a ‘daily’ data bundle of 2.2GB on my Airtel Simcard on Saturday, September 10, 2022, at 9:58 am. At 11:07 am, I got two simultaneous SMS notifications. One said I had already used 70% of the data bundle, the other that I had already used 90% of it.
I complained to Airtel on Twitter. They privately messaged me their standard seven-item list of how to ‘manage your data bundles’.
Although I had gone through this list before, I went through it again ensuring that I checked what phone applications accessed my mobile data leaving only those that I absolutely needed at the time. At 12:42 pm, I purchased a ‘weekly’ data bundle of 1.76GB.
As soon as I completed the purchase, I received two simultaneous SMS alerts. One said I successfully subscribed to the bundle, the other that I had already used 70% of it.
At 14:59 pm, the “you have used 90% of your data bundle” alert came in. By that time, whatever data volume I had left could hardly browse anything online.
At 14:59 pm, I subscribed for a ‘daily’ 180MB bundle. This time, I immediately received three simultaneous SMS alerts. You have subscribed, you have already used 70% and you have used 90%. All Airtel data alerts end with the standard “Dial *175*2* if you want more MBs at the same price.” Like you are really enjoying this experience!
I gathered the screenshots of these SMS alerts and tweeted protesting what I saw and still see as Airtel’s taking of my money and delivering nothing but anguish in return. The tweet gathered storm and many people interacted with it mostly complaining of suffering the same mistreatment at the hands of Airtel.
The following day, Sunday, September 11, I decided to check if Airtel was behaving the same way. I purchased three ‘daily’ 180MB data bundles at 11:03, 13:56 and 16:33. Standard three SMS alerts on all occasions. “You have purchased. You have already used 70%. You have used 90%”!
The next day, Airtel reached out to me via mobile phone. They said they were investigating the matter. That they wanted me to make some time for them to “take me through” via Zoom call, where the problem came from.
At about 10:00 pm, they called me to apologize that the Zoom call could not happen. They requested that we do it the following day, Tuesday.
After a few internet glitches on their end, the call finally happened on Tuesday, September 13. That call gave me the chance to hear Airtel out, to see what they claimed they had on their backend and to see how they handle customer complaints.
This is the sole reason I invested even more data, thankfully from a different service provider and valuable time on this interaction.
The Airtel person on the call informed me that they had dug up the Call Data files (“CDR”) after my complaint. The long and short of it was that they had established that there was no error in my data utilization and that I caused the entire debacle because I had my photos and iCloud drive turned on.
He explained that despite what the SMS alerts said to me, their records show that I used the 1.76GB bundle in two hours.
On the 180MB bundles, he deflected, saying that the smaller bundles would naturally suffer a worse fate than the 1.76GB.
In essence, that the SMS alerts were not a true reflection of what they had established to have happened in fact. They then proceeded to educate me on some strategies I could employ for more optimal data utilization. Having suffered these mostly false and illogical explanations long enough, the lawyer in me kicked in!
I explained that it is simply impossible for anyone to use up his or her data bundle in the same transaction that he or she purchases it. For most of the data bundles I complained of, there was no time lag between the purchase and depletion.
At a rate of 1.76GB per minute at the price of Shs 5,000 that Airtel charges, a user would need Shs 300,000 to use the internet for an hour. Who would afford this kind of data?
When I asked him what the fastest internet speeds a user can get over Airtel, the gentleman said 25Mbps. He agreed with me that for the vast majority of locations, devices and times, Airtel does not deliver internet at such speeds.
However, even for argument’s sake only, even at such very rare speeds, one would need at least a minute to use up 1.76GB; and that is if all their Apps were accessing the data bundle at the same time.
At a very minimum, there would need to be a lag between subscribing and using up. Airtel’s false and illogical explanations only proved that at best, there is no correlation between its SMS alerts and their customer’s data usage. This in effect means that their SMS alerts are a fraudulent misrepresentation.
Fraudulent because they are a feature of them taking money from millions of their customers for no service rendered. In simple contracts, we call this a complete failure of consideration resulting in an unjust enrichment of Airtel.
The only interaction that an Airtel customer has with their services is the phone interface, alerts and notifications. The customer does not have access to their CDR. Even Airtel itself cannot be looking at the CDR of all users’ devices at the same time. As in my case, they themselves can only dig it up after several days later on a need basis.
It is, therefore, callous for Airtel to try to hold customers to what they themselves allege they established from digging around their own backend when it is at stark odds with the SMS alerts that they send their customers.
More than the callousness, my experience is that Airtel is lying. The fact of the matter is that what happens in reality accords with the SMS alerts rather than the ex-post-facto dug-up explanations of Airtel. As soon as you get the “you have already used” alert, your internet slows down to a virtual halt.
In our interaction, Airtel was not admitting any fault on their part. Their language says it all. They minimized and called their fraudulent misrepresentation as “a cause of the issue brought about by the previously purchased bundle of the same volume”!
Then they mindlessly kicked the can down the road: “This has been raised to our development teams to look into”! I am thinking, you just stole my money and all you will do is to “look into it”! What impunity!
Then they sought to shift the blame on me, the victim of their fraud, fencing in technical IT jargon to confuse what is really a simple and straightforward matter. If they could employ these tactics on me, pity more ordinary customers who might not even speak English.
Many things from my experience with Airtel leave me more than just suspicious that what happened to me is by design, default and that it is widespread. This makes it a matter to which, a dutiful Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) would have paid attention.
But, our UCC is our UCC. In many ways, UCC can be seen as docile at best, obsequious to the internet service providers (ISPs) and in near reckless abandon of their taxpaying citizens. In a sense, this is a betrayal of the public duty and trust.
The questions that Airtel failed to answer revealed more than they concealed. What are the odds that all the 180MB bundles I purchased at different times would behave the same way? What are the odds that for all bundles I used up exactly 70% of them simultaneously with purchase?
My iCloud has always been turned on for the several years I have used my phone; why does the data not deplete in this odd manner every single time I purchase data bundle given what they suggest that it consumes the data as soon as the data is turned on? ICloud in fact defaults to backing up over WiFI.
Airtel cannot show you every single link a phone accessed using a data bundle. Meaning that they cannot account for any bundle. At best, their explanations were just what could possibly deplete your data that quickly, and not a record of what in fact happened.
To my mind, what happened suggests a pre-programmed auto behavior of Airtel’s data billing system. Whether this is so, the present architecture in which ISPs operate in Uganda ensures that we, the consumers, cannot and will never know. The system is Airtel’s and only they have access to it.
There is no regulator sitting in the middle between the ISP and the consumer and looking to ensure that the system does not cheat customers. Ugandan consumers do not have the quality assurance that they have with fuel pumps, for example. Uganda National Bureau of Standards regularly checks and certifies fuel pumps for defined periods.
When I asked if they could email me the records relating to my data usage, Airtel assured me that I could only apply for them at their Wampewo offices; imagine! The only place in all of Uganda that one can get their own data is their Wampewo office. I am intrigued by what I could find out if I got the chance to examine these records.
I think that the present architecture of the industry is shockingly gamed against the consumer, bypasses the regulator and is steeped in favour of the ISPs. All customer data is in the exclusive possession and control of the ISPs.
Therefore, any dispute between the consumer and their ISP over data usage can only be resolved by reference to the data generated, controlled and kept by the ISP. Given Airtel’s corporate culture, what are the odds that these records cannot be manipulated? Where is the quality assurance? The hyena is in charge of the meat market here.
What I found even more appalling than Airtel’s blame-the-victim-customer tactics is that in handling my complaint, they lied to me and sought to play me for a fool. They added shameful insult to injury by offering to console me with a 2.5GB data ‘one month’ Chillax bundle!
Insulting because what customers want and deserve is value for their money, not cheap charity. The statement that Airtel later issued, apparently to close their tiff with me accurately captured their forced but halfhearted admission that there is a problem, which they falsely insist is not with the data bundles but with their SMS alerts.
They said: “...as per our discussion, we highlighted the cause of the issue which was a notification lag brought about by previously subscribed bundle, this has been raised to our development teams to look into.”
This statement revealed more of what is terribly wrong with Airtel. Lying must be an entrenched culture in this corporation. How could they publish such a blatant lie? Like Bob Marley said: “you can fool some people some time but you cannot fool all the people all the time!”
A lag means a delay; a failure to keep up. What happened here was the exact opposite. An instantaneous and simultaneous SMS alert of both subscription and depletion. But, here you have a telecom employing Leninist- like propaganda over plain and clear facts of their wrongdoing in a public forum.
Because I knew that after my interaction with them, they would make some kind of public statement, I asked to know beforehand the text of what they meant to tweet.
After a couple of versions that I flatly rejected for being misrepresentative of the facts and falsely triumphant in their favour despite their public guilt, Airtel had the audacity to suggest that I delete my tweets!
Even if you ignored how condescending this is, I thereby got confirmation that Airtel is not prepared to clean house; they want to sweep the dirt under the carpet!
This is what makes a forensic audit of Airtel long overdue and a reform of the sector very urgent.
The author is a lawyer who was recognised with an Excellence Award by Uganda Law Society for the year 2022.