Peter Nowak: High-cost mobile wireless is a shared cultural issue

While travelling abroad, it seems sensible to pick up a local SIM card and cut roaming costs. But that’s -often not the case in the UAE for costly “tourist plans”, and it could even work out cheaper to pay your roaming rates.

It’s not just tourists who encounter problems with the local phone companies, it’s a way of life for locals too. Manjunath Kiran / AFP

One of the best things about travelling is that I get to escape, for a short while at least, the poor service and oppressive prices of my home mobile phone carrier. Canadians, you see, pay some of the highest wireless bills in the world.

Unfortunately, my visit to the UAE last week was disappointing on this front. While I enjoyed the overall trip, the telecommunications landscape left me with a sense of familiarity.

Paying my home carrier’s sky-high roaming rates while travelling is for me a non-starter, so my first stop in a new country is always with a local mobile provider. As someone who needs to be online all the time, I have to make sure I get a local SIM card to pop into my phone as soon as possible.

The clerk at the Etisalat kiosk at the Dubai airport was pleased to offer me the official traveller’s plan: For Dh100, I could get 40 minutes of calling, 40 text messages and 700 megabytes of data usage.

That seemed expensive. For the equivalent of about Dh150 back home I get unlimited calling and texting and 3 gigabytes of data. I decided to try my luck elsewhere.

The du store at The Dubai Mall wasn’t much better. The “tourist plan”, which is evidently different from what locals can get, offered just 200MB for Dh55. I’d blow through that little data in a just a few days. The clerk happily told me I could buy a card loaded with credit to top up if I ran out but that seemed like an unnecessary hassle.

I went to the Etisalat store next door to sign up only to find out I needed my passport, which was back in my hotel room. Ugh. Sure enough, where high prices go, inconveniences are sure to follow.

I ended up at another Etisalat store later, passport in tow, only to this time engage in a game of horse trading. The clerk said he had no official rates to show and instead quoted me options from the top of his head.

It sounded fishy, so I asked for the 700MB deal I’d been offered before. I finally got it and the service was fine once I was up and running. Good LTE speeds meant I was free to surf away.

By the time I got to Abu Dhabi a few days later, however, I was getting text messages warning that I was almost out of data. A clerk at a store topped me up for what seemed like a reasonable price: Dh60 for 1GB of data.

The problem, I discovered an hour later, is that the refill didn’t work. I trekked back to the store and the clerk explained she had mistakenly sold me a non-tourist plan. The money had already been applied to my account, though, so she couldn’t refund it. My only option was to pay another Dh15 to access the equivalent tourist plan.

That seemed like extortion, so I protested. Either the clerk had to somehow activate the plan she had sold me or she had to issue a refund. It was her mistake, after all. After much consternation, she finally gave in and I got my refill, but not without wasting several hours to get it.

All told, one week of wireless service cost me Dh160 – more than my monthly bill back in Canada – and required five visits to carrier stores. By comparison, getting service in Europe on a trip earlier this year cost me less than the equivalent of Dh60 for 3GB of data and more minutes and texts than I could use, and required only a single visit.

In the end, I would have been better off paying my home carrier’s high roaming fees.

In talking with locals, I learnt that these sorts of headaches are not uncommon. It’s not just tourists who encounter problems with the local phone companies, it’s a way of life for Emiratis too. Arguments over bills, technical problems and customer service agents who don’t necessarily follow the same scripts – it all happens more than it should. That sounds a lot like Canada.

On the bright side, one of the other good things about travelling is finding commonalities between cultures, an especially important approach to take in today’s divided world.

Canada and the UAE are obviously different in many ways but it’s refreshing to know – even in a somewhat twisted sense – that people in both places face some of the same day-to-day problems.

Wireless headaches, it turns out, know no borders.

Winner of the Week: Alphabet

Google’s parent company on Tuesday announced it will spin off its self-driving car effort into a separate unit known as Waymo. The unit is reportedly forming partnerships with other car makers, including Fiat Chrysler, with an aim to having autonomous vehicles on the road as soon as next year.

Loser of the Week: Apple

The iPhone maker will start selling its previously delayed AirPod wireless earphones in 100 countries next week, but is warning that they’ll only be available in limited quantities. Delivery estimates in the United States start at four weeks and about three weeks in the UAE.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of ­Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.

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