JOHANNESBURG - A friend recently confessed that she disables mobile data on her phone every night before bed. Not only that, she also switches her phone off completely, having taken note of how much data she had before doing so. 

I told another friend about this seemingly strange behaviour. They confessed to doing the same. It seemed the more people I spoke to, the more similar stories emerged. It wasn’t just South Africans keeping a close eye on their data either. People from across Africa all view mobile data as a premium commodity, to be preserved at all costs.

Part of it, I suspect, has to do with the trust deficit developing between mobile network operators and their customers, who feel that operators are secretly siphoning their data.

Indeed, South African operator Vodacom recently faced a customer relations disaster when it emerged that a technical error had emptied the accounts of some customers of both airtime and data bundles. The company immediately apologised, refunded affected customers and threw in an extra 500mb as a peace offering.

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A month before that, an investigation revealed that phones running on MTN in South Africa were depleting data even when the mobile data option had been switched off. The problem, it turned out, is that the LTE connection is "always on"; it uses data even when mobile data is switched off. Other networks have zero-rated the service. MTN hadn’t, but promised that it too, would fall in line.

It’s not just the behaviour of mobile operators that has everyone up in arms, the generally high cost of mobile data is also a massive pain point. Research by advocacy group Right2Know indicates that mobile data, especially in discounted bundle form, is priced beyond the reach of poorer households. Such households are forced to use mobile data at the more expensive out-of-bundle rates, or have no internet access at all.

The net result of all of this has been increased scrutiny by South African bodies tasked with consumer protection. Parliament, the Competition Commission and the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) are all looking into some aspect of the ecosystem.

Elsewhere on the continent, regulators have been imposing record fines and are revising telecommunication laws. The story of the internet and digital innovation in Africa has been driven by mobile growth, and cannot afford to be curtailed or slowed by spats between networks and regulators.

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However, the trust deficit alone doesn't fully explain why data feels so ephemeral; why customers guard it so jealously, and why they feel so hard done by when they think they have been cheated out of it.

Those of us old enough to remember the days of public telephones will remember that the call value we had available was clearly shown on the monochromatic display. Some of us even had the per minute rates to places we called regularly memorised and could match each minute of talk time with the money we had parted with.

Not to age myself, but some public phones in my day even had long-distance call rates printed clearly in the phone booth.

In the mobile era, this level of transparency has generally continued when it comes to voice, but seems to have fallen by the wayside when it comes to mobile data.

These days, with the litany of time-linked discounted data specials, differing data-usage speeds and zero-rated data that applies to only some content on apps, it's becoming harder to tell exactly how much time on the internet each cent you spend on mobile data gets you. Add to that the apps and updates that sometimes run unbeknown in the background, and you can see why people like my friend are so paranoid and suspicious.

One moment a 2GB package could last a couple of weeks and another just a matter of days – with no clear, obvious reason why. This creates an understandable sense of loss of control for customers – and predictable outrage.

Combine the above-mentioned trust deficit with this sense of loss of control, and it’s easy to see why data has become such a premium commodity in Africa. 

Thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. 

The inevitable coming wave of revisions to legislation should create room for innovative ways to deliver mobile data services in a manner that is more affordable, transparent, and customer-focused than at present. And if the current crop of network operators can’t adapt to these new conditions, we’ll surely see new entrants agile enough to use new telecommunications technologies to bring more Africans online on their own terms.

A digital native, Mich Atagana has been hanging around the internet since the days of Netscape. Her keen interest in all things digital led to her graduating with a Masters Degree in New Media and Journalism. Atagana is currently pursuing her PhD with a focus on the impact of social media and journalism. Her research focuses on the Kenyan Westgate shootings and how Twitter was used as the primary source of news and communication. Her professional career has included her role as Editor of Burn Media, a multimedia digital publishing house which focuses on the intersection of technology and media, and entrepreneurship. An expert on Africa’s tech and startup scene, Atagana is currently the Head of Communications & Public Affairs for Google South Africa.

Mich Atagana is the Head of Communications and Public Affairs at Google South Africa.