Recently, MTN’s Facebook page has been flooded with posts from unhappy subscribers, most of whom complain about mysteriously disappearing airtime and data.
In most cases, when MTN responds, it advises its subscribers to dial *141*5# to deactivate content subscriptions which may be deducting their airtime. Those who have confirmed that they have no active content subscriptions are usually advised to call 173 and select option 0 to speak to an MTN agent. However, according to customers who recently called 173, option 0 does not work. This has left many customers feeling ripped off, with some threating to leave the network.
Earlier this year, a report by the South African Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman revealed that MTN was the most complained about company in South Africa between 2015 and 2016. Last week it was reported that in the first half of 2016, the number of MTN SA subscribers declined by 2.6% to 29.8 million, meaning that the network lost close to 800 000 subscribers in the country.
However, despite losing subscribers, MTN SA’s revenue increased by 5.1% to R19.84 billion. This increase was attributed to higher device sales and data revenue. According to a financial report released last week, MTN’s data revenue increased by 19,2%, contributing 34,1% to total revenue. The number of smartphones on the network increased by 18,4% to 9,3 million, while megabytes per user increased by 53,8%.
Following the publication of these financial results, some disgruntled subscribers saw the increase in data revenue as proof that MTN is overcharging them. Usually, when customers complain of being overcharged, MTN puts the blame on content subscriptions and smartphone settings, claiming that apps running in the background and automatic updates can deplete data and airtime without the user noticing. While this may be true in some cases, we have ample evidence that MTN’s billing system can sometimes be the culprit.
Over the past few days we observed that MTN does not bill its customers accurately in real time and that sometimes the amount of data used can be greater than the available data bundle, leaving a customer with a data debt which gets deducted from airtime or a newly loaded data bundle. If for example, a client has R100 airtime and 50MB of data, MTN can allow them to use 80MB without charging them or showing them immediately how much data they have used. If they check their balance moments before being billed, they may think that their airtime is still safe and continue using the internet, unaware that there is already 30MB that they have to pay for in out-of-bundle rates (R1 to R2 per MB).
One may argue that using a billing system like this is unethical and aimed at maximizing profit. Allowing unsuspecting customers to accummulate data debt and then deducting their airtime without their explicit permission is tantamount to theft or fraud, regardless of what the terms and conditions may say. Since internet users buy data bundles to protect their airtime from the ridiculously high out-of-bundle rates, when their data bundles have been depleted, they should be disconnected from the internet and given an option to buy another data bundle or continue using the internet at out-of-bundle rates. Unlike Telkom Mobile (8.ta), MTN does not provide this option. It just deducts airtime without redirecting its customers to a page where they can choose to either approve out-of-bundle rates, buy another data bundle or stay offline. If MTN does not review and change its billing system, more subscribers may leave the network and switch to networks that allow them to browse the internet peacefully, knowing their airtime is safe.