1st November 2020
African-Corollas-3

Whose data is cheapest?

African-Corollas-3
Data Race

Most people nowadays see Internet access as essential for their small business and even for their household. However, since Internet costs in Zambia are still quite high, the driver for the choice of provider is more often the costs than the quality of the service. After being asked the title question by several of my clients I did some research, which I want to share with you here on Techtrends.

The main premise of this article is to look at the costs of the data-only service of each Internet Service Provider. Voice, SMS or the bundling of voice and data is not under scrutiny here (check out this Techtrends article for that).

mobile-providersMost ISPs have packages catering for a whole range of needs, from households through SMEs, medium businesses upto large enterprises. I’ll focus here on a household of two or three regular users, in an area of Lusaka that is covered by all the ISPs mentioned below. The latter can not be taken for granted: coverage is far from universal. For this target group, there is no requirement to be mobile, although some of the ISPs give mobility either through a phone handset or through a small portable modem (‘Mifi’) or a laptop dongle.

This overview is limited to the data providers that publish their products and pricings on their website. The one listed here are, in no particular order, Airtel, MTN, Zamtel, Vodafone, Microlink and iConnect. Others offering connectivity meant for home users are Coppernet and iSatAfrica but they do not publish products or tariffs on their website. Paratus doesn’t offer home connections, only corporate connections. Hai’s offering is on their website but it isn’t very clear what you are paying for (fibre or something else?) nor will the installation costs be in the scope for a home connection. I left them out but feel free to check them out.

Another thing to mention before we get down to the numbers is the phenomenon of Bundles and data-capping. Strictly a bundle is a combined tariff for voice and data. In practice, it is used for more than that. MTN’s data product on your phone is called a bundle but their Home Internet product is not. Vodafone calls their packages ‘bundles’ when they are not doing voice at all (not yet, at any rate).
Basically, you pay for the volume and not the speed. A 1 GB bundle lets you transfer 1 Gigabyte of data and how long that takes depends on the link you happen to have and is beside the point anyway. After the bundle is finished or the data cap is reached you are dead in the water and need to buy a top-up or a fresh bundle. That can be rather irritating when you are just about to download that one important document (or fantastic movie, as the case may be). And bundles also have an expiration date: if you have a 10 GB bundle valid for 30 days and you have 8 GB used on day 30 you will loose the remaining 2 GB.

datamustfallWhy all those caps and restrictions? Because getting Internet into Zambia is still very expensive. Each and every ISP pays huge amounts of money every month to the owners of the fibre cables connecting Zambia to the outside world. For some, it might even be their highest cost line item each month. That means they are continuously walking a fine line between buying just enough capacity needed to serve their clients and having too little. With all clients unrestricted in their Internet use the ISPs infrastructure and the fibre cables to the world would quickly be congested and nobody would get a good service. In other words: they have no choice if they want to keep the costs for their clients reasonable.

Still with me? Then let’s get back to those costs. Below you’ll find a small table for each ISP. It has the product name, the size (volume) of the bundle and the time it expires in. Then there is the list price (everything as mentioned on their website) and something that nobody publishes but is rather handy to compare them all with: the price in Kwacha per Megabyte. The latter is simply calculated as volume in MB divided by list price in Kwacha. It is the ‘real’ cost for your Megabytes. Of course as with mealie meal the more you buy the cheaper it gets. That is why another thing you’ll see in the tables is that each 10 GB bundle is highlighted, so it is easier to compare an average medium-heavy user among the ISPs. That 10GB is an arbitrary choice. Some will use more, some will use less. That is why I’m giving you the whole table for each provider.

So here goes.

Airtel
Airtel offers data through what they call 3.75G. Just short of 4G! It actually is a spruced-up 3G technology, see further down this article. By now this is getting a bit old and perhaps a bit slow compared to the 4G competition, so perhaps it is a bargain? Check for yourself. Availability is widespread.

ISP Product Volume (MB) Validity (Days) Price (K) Price per MB
Airtel Internet bundles 20 1 3.15 0.158
25 1 4 0.160
50 1 7 0.140
100 1 10 0.100
250 1 20 0.080
100 7 25 0.250
250 7 35 0.140
500 7 50 0.100
1000 7 100 0.100
2000 7 140 0.070
250 30 50 0.200
500 30 100 0.200
1000 30 130 0.130
2000 30 185 0.093
5000 60 350 0.070
  10000 60 700 0.070
20000 90 1150 0.058
40000 90 2000 0.050

MTN

MTN started with ‘proper 4G’ a few years ago, after iConnect, by installing LTE base stations in Lusaka. Since then they have expanded all over the country and their 4G/LTE coverage is good now. Data services, either 3G or 4G are available in most places where they have signal.

The bundle pricing structure is the almost the same as the other MNOs. Separate from the bundles their Home Internet product using a modem is cheaper and the same as Vodafone.

What is unusual with MTN is the weekend and night tariffs. Whomever needs internet only on a Sunday or at night is in luck because it is really cheap! Perhaps for that one cool movie?

ISP Product Volume (MB) Validity (Days) Price (K) Price per MB
MTN Internet bundles 20 1 3.15 0.158
75 30 20 0.267
150 30 35 0.233
300 30 60 0.200
500 30 100 0.200
1000 30 130 0.130
2000 30 185 0.093
3000 30 262.5 0.088
6000 60 498.75 0.083
10000 60 700 0.070
20000 60 1150 0.058
Weekend 4500 2 60 0.013
Sunday 1500 1 10 0.007
Sunday 4500 1 30 0.007
Night 1500 0.21 7.5 0.005
Night 4500 0.21 25 0.006
Night 6000 0.29 35 0.006
Home Internet 10GB 10000 30 250 0.025
Home Internet 20GB 20000 30 490 0.025
Home Internet 30GB 30000 30 670 0.022
Home Internet Yendelela 40000 30 840 0.021

Zamtel
So how is good old Zamtel doing? They still have their ADSL service but also have a 3G mobile-based data service. ADSL is a older but proven low-latency technology that uses the copper landline telephony wiring that is all around town. Problem with that is of course that it is very vulnerable and service interruptions will be frequent.
It seems Zamtel’s pricing for ADSL is lower than the wireless services for other Mobile Operators, and in the same range as Vodafone and MTN’s Home Internet. Its mobile offerings however are in the same range as the Airtel and MTN bundles: check the 10GB bundles they are all 7 Ngwee per Megabyte. Are these guys watching each other or not?

ISP Product Volume (MB) Validity (Days) Price (K) Price per MB
Zamtel Mobile Internet PAYG 0.940
Mobile Internet bundles 10 30 4.7045 0.470
20 1 2.0909 0.105
25 30 10.4545 0.418
50 30 18.8182 0.376
100 30 31.3636 0.314
250 30 67.9545 0.272
300 30 75.2727 0.251
500 30 100.3636 0.201
1000 7 49 0.049
1000 30 120.2273 0.120
1500 30 177.7273 0.118
2000 30 182.9545 0.091
4000 60 329.3182 0.082
6000 60 470.4545 0.078
10000 90 700.4545 0.070
20000 90 815.4545 0.041
ADSL Home broadband 10000   250 0.025
20000 450 0.023
50000 600 0.012
100000 800 0.008
ADSL Business broadband 100000 1080 0.011
200000 1299 0.006
500000 1599 0.003
Top-up bundles 500 50 0.100
1000 100 0.100
10000   125 0.013
20000 225 0.011
50000 300 0.006
100000 400 0.004

Vodafone

The new guy on the block uses the latest LTE 4G equipment. This can also do voice so expect them to offer voice later on when ZICTA relaxes the regulatory environment for voice over IP (VoIP). Vodafone is still growing their network, I have seen a MyFi connection in Ibex Hill go from a marginal single bar to three bars a few weeks ago, evidence that a new tower was switched on.

Vodafone’s pricing is good, indeed better than Airtel and MTN’s bundles.

ISP Product Volume (MB) Validity (Days) Price (K) Price per MB
Vodafone Personal 75 1 8 0.107
400 1 40 0.100
200 7 30 0.150
1000 7 100 0.100
500 30 100 0.200
2000 30 185 0.093
5000 30 230 0.046
10000 30 250 0.025
25000 30 550 0.022
50000 30 999 0.020
100000 30 1850 0.019
PAYGO 1.000

Microlink

Microlink is a smaller and older ISP with what seems to be a steady loyal group of customers. They rolled out the same 4G equipment as iConnect a few years ago, but on far less towers so with less coverage. Still, if you are lucky it will give you a good connection.
Below are their prices. Be careful, some of the pricing on their website is before VAT, although the pages where these numbers came from don’t mention that.
The website is not very clear about it but the HU product seems equivalent to the others’ Internet offerings.
The rest are top-up rates, without clear conditions mentioned. I might have read it wrong, but it is structured rather oddly: for the higher bundles the off-peak seem to be more expensive than peaktime.

ISP Product Volume (MB) Validity (Days) Price (K) Price per MB
Microlink HU bundles 5000 165.71 0.033
10000   248.57 0.025
20000 469.52 0.023
50000 856.19 0.017
Topup vouchers off-peak 1000 40 0.040
3000 115 0.038
5000 185 0.037
10000 350 0.035
Topup vouchers peaktime 100 10 0.100
500 45 0.090
1000 90 0.090
3000 150 0.050
5000 200 0.040
10000 225 0.023

iConnect

iConnect (Africonnect) was the first to roll out 4G WiMax a few years ago and rolled out big for a small ISP. Coverage is pretty much all of the big towns. Lusaka is good everywhere except at the fringes. In my personal experience the 4G service close to a tower is great, but can be less at a distance. They have not switched yet to LTE.

iConnect used to have a rather expensive reputation. It seems that is not the case anymore. The table shows them to be in the same range as its reluctant aunty company Vodafone, albeit just a bit higher.

ISP Product Volume (MB) Validity (Days) Price (K) Price per MB
iConnect iBundle 500 60 50 0.100
iBundle 1000 60 95 0.095
iBundle 2000 60 180 0.090
iBundle 4000 60 225 0.056
Home 10 10000 30 299 0.030
Home 15 15000 30 435 0.029
Home 20 20000 30 585 0.029
Home 30 30000 30 799 0.027
Home Unlimited 100000 30 999 0.010
Office 20 20000 30 899 0.045
Office 30 30000 30 1195 0.040
Office 40 40000 30 1599 0.040
Office 50 50000 30 1799 0.036
Office Unlimited 100000 30 1999 0.020

 

Be careful:
• Coverage varies tremendously. If you live in the Lusaka CBD or Kabulonga, Kalundu or Roma you’ll be fine (apart from the trees!). However, the newer lay-outs like Silverrest, Waterfalls, the Meanwoods, Makeni / Lilayi, in East or along GNR will not have good coverage of all ISPs. A new one like Vodafone is still building their network but older ones are more static. A small older ISP like Microlink will certainly have a patchy service. In such cases, a trial is the only way to find out whether you will get a useful service and the ISPs will usually oblige.
• Quality of service was not under consideration here. It depends on so many factors that it is almost impossible to compare without some serious (and expensive) testing and research.
• In some cases bundles labelled ‘top-up’ can only be used for just that: top-up of a previously depleted bundle. They are cheaper but cannot be used for price comparison.
• Some have Pay-as-you-Go tariffs, outside any bundle. As you can see in the tables, stay away from that, it is very expensive. They are meant as transition from one bundle to another and not for regular use.
• Some make buying bundles very easy: 20 GB for one day for 3 Kwacha. Very nice, but if you do that on your phone take care that if the bundle expires it doesn’t start eating into your voice airtime without saying anything. It happens….

Conclusion

So what is the cheapest, or at least least expensive ISP?

Looking at the 10 GB packages we get:

  • Vodafone, MTN’s Home product and Zamtel’s ADSL and Microlink for 0.025 K/MB
  • iConnect following with 0.030 K/MB
  • Airtel trails at 0.070 K/MB for their 3.75G service

So the conclusion is that there is not too much difference. Then which one to choose? As mentioned that is a function not just of pricing but also of availability and quality of the connection at you location. Even vegetation can make a difference. Also: how easy is it to make a payment? For Vodafone you can do that through their app using a debit card, the Mobile Operators through their many shops and for others you need to go to a specific locations, which might not be convenient all the time.

Disclaimer
I am not affiliated with any ISP in any way. The data on pricings, volumes and validity dates were taken from the respective websites of the companies beginning of September. They may or may not be up-to-date. Also, I might have made mistakes so please do not go to any of these ISPs saying “but Erik said so”…..

Author: Erik Schoute is a consultant with Amsterzam Limited