This impact story was written by Primus Tazanu as part of the 2019 Affordability Report, which was published on October 22. Illustration by Neema Iyer.
Pseudonyms are used for the names of people and most places to protect participants’ identities.
Only a few people would understand what you meant if you mentioned internet data (or simply data) in Cameroon half a decade ago. Data has become a pervasive word particularly among those who access the internet via smartphones, a technology that has fundamentally changed the ways in which we access the internet. With smartphones, users connect directly to the internet in a setting where most of them do not own personal computers. Before this device became widespread, the majority of Cameroonians online accessed the internet from cybercafés.
Focusing exclusively on the ease with which people get online may blind us of the fact that some users find it difficult to afford the internet. Internet access is still expensive in some countries, a reminder of the inequality of access often described as the digital divide. The stories of Anita, Joseph and Alice capture a context where going online is part of daily life and where the various providers offer similar conditions to accessing the internet. How these actors use data reflects ingenious strategies deployed by poor people to adapt to a competitive internet market.
Buea, Cameroon: Anita checks data usage in the setting of her smartphone to see how much data she still has left. She switched off her mobile data a few hours ago after chatting with her friends on WhatsApp. As a student depending on her mother, siblings and friends, she periodically buys daily data bundles of 100MB. Anita recently went to a phone shop where a technician helped to block automatic downloads of images on her WhatsApp. He also advised her on how to reduce data consumption on her phone. Because she does not want to waste data to download unnecessary information, she always asks friends if the photos, videos and audios she receives from them are important.
Joseph’s story is unlike Anita’s in many ways; he is self-employed and has multiple sources of income, the greatest coming from his work as a web designer and marketer. Working as a web designer requires him to always stay connected to the internet. But this is not the case due to the high cost of data. To diversify his access to the internet, Joseph subscribes to networks A, B and C plus a WiFi connection. These companies offer almost similar rates and Joseph’s motive for subscribing to all of them is speculative, owing to the general internet instability in his neighborhood in Douala. His main mobile and WiFi connections are through A, a network he describes as relatively stable but slow compared to the fast but unreliable B. He uses network C only when visiting his parents in the suburbs.
Joseph’s daily WiFi limit is 1GB. For this, he pays 10.000 CFA (about 17 USD) per month. This sounds like a huge amount of data per person in a country where an average user’s daily consumption is between 50MB and 100MB. However, he happens to share this internet with two people living with him plus two neighbors who found out that he has WiFi. Joseph instructs his friends to use the WiFi only for chatting but has ‘no means to verify if they abide by the rules. Most of the times, before 2pm the 1GB is exhausted. No point complaining. They assure me they played by the rules, but I do not believe them.’
While waiting for the next 1GB to become available the following day, these users buy small amounts of data of about 50MB each. Joseph then turns to SIM card B, which he stores in his wallet. With this SIM he buys data and sets up a hotspot on his phone, connecting his computer to the internet. Those around him do not beg to connect to his hotspot because they understand the high cost of phone data. Joseph concludes ‘once you use other devices which they do not have, they tend to believe that your internet is free or very cheap.’
This narrative of wishing for cheaper internet access is also reflected in Alice’s cost-minimizing practices. She is a young, unemployed university graduate living with her sister in Buea. As a student, she received financial support from her family but has been left on her own after graduating from university. Alice buys a monthly data bundle of 1.2GB which places her average daily consumption at 40MB. She uses this solely for chatting and periodically buys night promotion data that runs from midnight to 6am. With this 2GB, she downloads images and audio files from her WhatsApp chats, chats with friends in the US, searches for study opportunities abroad, reads celebrity news, and watches films. Alice says she is not nervous about the cost of data when using the internet at night. She must however monitor the progress of her downloads or uploads especially when there are network hitches.
The night offer is just one of the many business strategies used by the providers to either gain or retain customers. These companies frequently do SIM promotions and in a country where mobile data is sought-after, this is something people take full advantage of. Accepting a promotion in some cases means means changing SIM cards and making you unreachable on your regular phone number. Subscribers find it unattractive buying new SIM cards just for the sake of data unless their phone takes multiple SIMs, they have more than one phone or they care less about destroying the SIM slots in their phones.
How do these offers work? With promotion SIM cards, users could buy data as little as 10MB for 45frs CFA (.077 USD). A few months after subscribing to this service, the options of cheap mobile data may begin to diminish as in Joseph’s case. He bought SIM cards from providers B and C when they did promotions but soon realized that the more data he bought, the more the cheap airtime and data options began to decrease. He started receiving text messages about airtime and internet bundle options that are not as cheap as when he bought the SIM. These providers’ algorithms are programmed to detect big and small consumers to whom they send data option codes. Joseph buys airtime and data regularly and for this he receives codes for large, but averagely cheap, data. While he receives codes that could allow him to buy 30GB data for 10.000 CFA per month, Alice gets an SMS from the same company, inviting her to buy 1.2GB monthly data for 500 CFA. Supposing Alice, the low consumer, buys data every month and the prevailing market conditions remain unchanged, she would in fact spend 12500CFA to purchase 30GB data in the next twenty-nine months.
By and large, every innovation in pricing, promotions and products introduced by one company are instantly copied by other providers. Cameroon’s mobile communication sector is competitive, but this competition does not generally drive down prices for customers. It is more about getting more subscribers and this comes with some measure of business rigidity. For example the improbability of retaining your numbers if you decide to change providers. These phone numbers already function as identities the owners do not want to discard. Anita and Alice are unwilling to change their numbers (thus providers), even as they regularly encounter unstable internet connections. In Alice’s case, two other companies have strong networks in her neighborhood. These users prioritize their phone numbers over better internet networks since they did not buy the SIM card primarily for data purposes. Prior to moving into her present city, Anita already had her phone number for eight years — five years before she started using the internet. Essentially, these subscribers’ inability to retain their numbers if they switch providers and the inconvenience that comes with changing numbers point to the ways in which they are subtly locked in or bound to their providers.
Data remains expensive for most people in Cameroon and listening to stories about the difficulties in getting online leads one to understand why they do not hesitate to connect to free internet when the opportunity arises — for instance, snooping around for an unlocked WiFi. However, it is usually through snooping that people discover WiFi owners such as Joseph. His story demonstrates a social norm of internet-sharing in a milieu where people create relationships with WiFi owners for purposes of accessing free internet. In fact, because she wanted free WiFi, Anita befriended a technician at the phone shop where she received guidance on how to reduce her data consumption. The shop is located two kilometers away from her home and she goes there only when she wants to download videos, school material or update an app. It is humiliating, she says, ‘to ask for the password every time I go there.’ She would wait patiently if her friend is serving other clients, for her access to the WiFi remains a secret between the two of them. Likewise, Stephen routinely visits his friends in their offices with the intention of using free internet. Out of desperation, he sometimes moves ‘from one office to another just to get more satisfactory internet.’
What has been described so far points to a form of consumption where internet users are conscious and cautious about data. What internet data means for most Cameroonians is a constant wish to go online despite the high cost of the internet. From a diverse array of options for connectivity, people express a common desire to connect with each other through the internet.
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