Thursday, 13 March 2008

Please DON’T Call Me

If you reply to a “Please Call Me” SMS, you will be the victim of a scam to bill you R50.50 per second of air time. That’s R3300 for one minute! In dollars, that’s more than $400!

Okay, now you can relax: it’s only an urban legend. Starting life as an e-mail warning at the time the Call Me service was launched by Vodacom, it has yet again resurfaced on the grapevine, doing the rounds by word of mouth.

The Daily News first carried the story on 30 September 2004, under the heading Worry over e-mail. Bhavna Sookha summed up the hoax:

According to the e-mail, recipients of "please call me" messages received from unknown 072 numbers should be ignored.

The e-mail also says that after one makes a call to the "please call me" number, which is an unknown number, the person that answers the phone will try and keep you on the line for quite some time, asking stupid questions and running up your phone bill.

It was also alleged that these calls were being charged at R50.50 per second and that the receiver of the call was pocketing the money. If they managed to keep the victim on the phone for at least 10 seconds they would make at least R505.

The fraudulent e-mail then went on to say that service provider, Vodacom, was urging the community to be aware and not respond to SMSs (short message service) from strange or unknown numbers.

Sookha had Mthobi Tyamzashe, chief communications officer of the Vodacom group, debunk the e-mail as a hoax. According to Tyamzashe, he wrote, "please call me" is an authentic Vodacom service so popular it is used more than a billion times every month.

"It is a free, person-to-person service that automatically attaches the sender's cellphone number to the "please call me" message," said Tyamzashe." This means there is no third party involved and therefore it is impossible for any private individual to derive an income through the 'please call me' service."

Although the e-mail died, the urban legend lives on. What brought it back to life?

Ironically, the networks themselves added the necessary elements of myth to the Call Me service during 2007, during hearings by the telecommunications regulator Icasa into the high interconnection fees networks charge callers from other networks who phone numbers on their networks – an amount of R1.25 per call, which has never been justified from a cost perspective.

During the hearings, MTN argued that a quarter of its customers in SA never made a single call, but did receive incoming calls. MTN could afford to keep those customers connected, claimed Nkateko Nyoka, MTN’s head of regulatory affairs, only because of the profit it made from delivering each call.

He warned that any interference in the fees that telecoms operators charge each other to route calls between their networks could force up the cost of phone calls and prevent poor people from ever joining a cellular network.

In Business Day on 17 May 2007, under the beautifully ironic heading, Call-cost model aids poor, says MTN, Lesley Stones quoted Nyoka as saying that high termination fees intensified the competition to sign up the poorest users because the operators could make money from their incoming calls.

The disingenuousness of this statement is further compounded by his statement:

“Inbound revenue is the key to connecting people with no disposable income.”

If the connection fees were low, no operator would want to serve the poor and currently unconnected people, he added for good measure.

The next day, Vodacom piled on the irony. Again, as quoted by Lesley Stones, this time under the heading Poor will be silenced if cell fees are cut, they said that cashless customers who send 18-million text messages a day asking wealthier friends to call them back could be axed from Vodacom’s network if the interconnection fee for delivering the incoming calls are cut:

Vodacom’s government relations and regulatory executive Pakamile Pongwana said that radical cuts forced on its network in Tanzania had unintended consequences, as Vodacom had less income to spend on expanding its network.

There was a fine balance between the wholesale and retail prices, and SA’s current regime had lowered the cost of cellphone ownership so that even the poorest people could get connected, said Pongwana.

Vodacom could not justify keeping a significant proportion of its pre-paid users on its network if there was not enough profit in delivering incoming calls to them, added Karl Lawrenz, its executive of regulatory projects.

If cost-based termination rates were imposed, it would not be sustainable to retain those low-spending users, he said.

No mention of just how much money the networks made from the actual calls resulting from the call-me service! And no mention of the fact that they had been provided with near-monopoly licenses partly with a mandate to provide access to communications to all South Africans.

Business day reader Andrew Fraser summed up the public’s incredulity at these statements with a letter to the editor headed Ring of falsehood. It read, in part:

Your article had me vacillating between amusement and horror… According to the article, MTN argues that 25% of its customers never make a call, and that the profit from interconnection allows it to keep those customers connected.

… The reason that 25% of those customers never make a call is precisely because the price of making a call is so high, and that price is driven up by the astronomical interconnect fees... It is unethical and corrupt to claim that higher profits benefit the people paying for the services. Higher profits benefit shareholders — nobody else.

The interconnect hearings were probably a low point in the networks’ efforts to display their commitment to the development of the country, as opposed to commitment to their own profits. The manner in which the Call Me service was conscripted to their argument added dramatically to the obfuscation around how it really worked, and created an impression that it was a highly profitable service. How could it make such large profits? Surely by overcharging hideously on the resultant calls?

The urban legend was reborn in the wake of those hearings, and is now enjoying a healthy afterlife, long after the e-mail hoax was laid to rest.

(* On 11 October 2007, according to, Vodacom announced that text ads would be sold on Please Call Me, “its free call-back service claimed to generate up to 20 million messages a day and reaches both the lower and higher end of the market”. A useful revenue generator, but also one that makes the contents of those crammed Call Me messages even more confusing. Watch this lack of space… )

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Sunday, 09 March 2008

Right (no, left) of way:
The error at Hospital Bend

Did you know that Cape Town’s notorious traffic bottleneck known as hospital bend is the result of an absurd engineering blunder? At least, that’s the way it goes in the land of urban legends. There are two variations on the theme, and both are usually told as “everyone who lives in Cape Town knows about it”.

Here is a classic version of the first variation, as shared with me by correspondent Simon Fishley:

I spent 7 years in the Cape and working in various regions of Cape Town. One of my biggest grumbles was about 2 traffic interchanges, the one known as Hospital Bend, where the N2 passes Groote Schuur Hospital, and the other the M5/N1 interchange. Both of these intersections have most peculiar off and on ramps where you get on or off the highways in the fast (right hand) lane.

On the M5 heading towards Milnerton, if you plan to get onto the N1 north, you will suddenly have to slam on brakes as you round a corner and find the right hand lane completely stationary with traffic queuing to take the offramp.

On the N2 coming from Newlands, you leave the highway in the right lane to get to Observatory and Groote Schuur hospital. If you want to head towards Newlands from the hospital you have to accelerate onto the highway like an F1 car leaving the pits as you join traffic in the fast lane with people flying down the hill, past the hospital, around virtually a blind corner.

I heard from several sources while I lived in Cape Town that this absurdity is due to the design of these junctions being handled by an overseas engineering firm who operate from a country where they drive on the right hand side of the road and that no-one thought to mention to said company that we in SA drive on the left hand side of the road.

For a first-hand view of the “absurdity”, a Hospital Bend webcam has allegedly been set up for public viewing, but it appears to be frozen in time during November 2006 – perhaps because someone wanted to capture a moment during which it wasn’t completely backed up. However, customers of MTN Loaded can view it live at a cost of R1 a time.

The other variation on the theme is that the engineering firm responsible for this interchange as well as for the Koeberg Interchange – another absurdity of road engineering (see map above) – was trying to save time and sweat, so they cribbed the design from an American highway design. Forgetting that the American onramps and offramps were designed for traffic that kept right instead of left.

Simon’s version reached me, coincidentally, as the City of Cape Town launched four major upgrades to its highway system, including re-engineering of Hospital Bend and the Koeberg Interchange, ahead of the 2010 World Cup. Anel Powell reported in The Cape Times 28 January 2008:

The R235-million roadworks on Hospital Bend, set to begin on Monday, are expected to cause serious delays for motorists coming into Cape Town from the southern suburbs.

Elizabeth Thompson, mayoral committee member for transport, roads and stormwater, said at least two lanes in each direction would be kept open in an attempt to keep traffic flowing. This had been stipulated in the contract awarded to Haw and Inglis... The upgrade of the N2-Settlers Way Freeway is to take 25 months, with completion set for March 2010.

The project, considered one of the most important of the city's transport-related undertakings for 2010, is to be funded by the national department of transport, the provincial government and the City of Cape Town. The province has allocated R20m.

The in-bound upgrade is to cost R155m, and the out-bound revamp R63m. The rest of the R235m is to go to project consultants.

Eddie Chinnappen, the city's executive director of transport, roads and stormwater, said the upgrade would allow drivers to select lanes before they reached Hospital Bend.

For traffic heading towards the city from the N2, three lanes converge into two on Hospital Bend.

With the improvements, there will still be three lanes, but drivers will be able to choose their lanes earlier.

The lanes coming in to Hospital Bend from the M3 are to split sooner into two independent lanes, so drivers may choose their lane well before hitting Hospital Bend. The same principles are to apply for traffic out of the city.

There will also be new bridges, a widening of the existing bridge and improvements to drainage, lighting and directional signs.

During the afternoon peak hour, more than 6 200 vehicles enter the top of Hospital Bend.

According to the final environmental impact report compiled in June, the upgrade has been on the cards since 1998... Work is also to begin on Granger Bay Boulevard and the Koeberg interchange.

Talk about an expensive mistake. But adding to the ridicule heaped on these highways and the upgrades is the fact that it has taken ten years from beginning the process to starting to fix the mess. The parallel with Eskom’s ten-year warning of power shortages has inspired many a sharp response.

On the My Digital Life blog, cyberbond writes:

Apparently the plan has been drafted in 1998 already, so now that 2010 is in sight, someone probably dusted off the old plans – lying in a backroom somewhere in archives and decided, “Oh, this might be a good idea”.

I wonder just how many other “proposals” like the one that was given from Eskom to government 10 years ago etc is laying on a shelve somewhere ready to bite us in the backside.

A delightful send-up of the thinking that led to these engineering fiascos also appeared a few weeks ago on another blog, 6000 miles from civilisation, under the title Out of the Frying Pan.

According to this variation on the theme, Koeberg Interchange was designed by one Willie van der Plooy: “a nasty, bitter individual with a hell of a temper, a drink problem and complex psychological issues including a vendetta against all forms of road transport after he failed his driving test six times in a single month. Legend has it that he hid himself away and studied long and hard to become a civil engineer, then got his own back on an unsuspecting Cape Town driving public one evening by downing 6 bottles of Klippies, popping a couple of tabs of LSD and coming up with a new design for the crossroads of the N1 and the M5.”

That fanciful version is almost kinder than the urban legends!

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