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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Equitel - First Impressions

By Pete R Njenga

UPDATE: Equitel has since lowered data charges and now has a most interesting SMS tariff. Read it all here.

NOTE: This is a relatively long post. You can jump to the conclusion already if reading epic stuff is not your thing. To enlarge any of the screen-shots, simply click on the image.

Shortly after 1pm yesterday, I walked into Equity Bank Limuru to get my Equitel SIM. Which I did.
I now proceed to share with you my considered opinion regarding Equitel services viz: voice, sms, data, money transfer and mobile banking.

Of great interest is the public anticipation that was piqued initially at the unveiling of the Equity MVNO strategy and roll-out plan. Also, the legal, regulatory and legislative back and forth which has so far delayed Equitel's launch which was scheduled for July 2014.
All in all, is Equitel good enough to make you ditch Safaricom, Airtel or Orange?

In this post post, I'll endeavor to stay objective and give due credit to all the competing service providers viz Safaricom, Airtel Kenya and Orange Kenya.
That said, let's get right into it.


Service Menus

The Equitel Customer Care number is 100. This number is also used by Safaricom, Airtel and Orange Kenya customers.
Via USSD, *100# presents the Safaricom Self Service menu and the Airtel Kenya Menu which grants access to almost all services offered by these providers. Equitel's menu is quite limited as shown below.

Balance Query

The balance query on Equitel is quite an issue. We have previously written on putting the user first in UI and UX design so that services and menus are accessible to any customer at the least possible effort (or clicks if you like). Equitel needs to come up with a USSD code to query data balance, not the complicated two-step *100# shown below:

Dialing *131# on Airtel, Orange and yuMobile instantly displays your balance. Safaricom users dial *144#. Orange wins on this one because the balance displayed includes main balance, data balance and other bonus balances, including their expiry dates.

Sending a blank SMS to 144 on Safaricom returns the most comprehensive balance statement comprising main airtime balance, its validity, data balance, sms balance and Bonga Points balance.

Voice Services
The Equitel voice tariff is as follows:
  • Ksh 4 per minute from Equitel to Equitel
  • Ksh 4 per minute from Equitel to other networks
  • Ksh 2 per minute to all networks for Equity employees and Equity agents
I feel that this is contrary to public expectation. I personally hoped for a Ksh 3 per minute across networks and Ksh 2 within the Equitel network call rate.

In comparison, Orange charges Ksh 2 per minute within its network (GSM, Telkom landline & CDMA) and charges Ksh 3 per minute across networks.
Safaricom charges Ksh 4 both on-net and off-net. Between 10pm to 8am, however, Safaricom charges Ksh 2 within its network.
Airtel charges Ksh 4.02 both on-net and off-net. On Airtel Tosha, you get the most competitive daily, weekly and monthly voice+sms+data bundles by dialing *767#.

Sending SMS across all networks will cost 1/- on Equitel.

Safaricom charges 1/- for SMS across all networks. It however has super friendly daily SMS rates on *188#. 20 SMS for Ksh 5, 200 SMS for Ksh 10 etc. These SMS bundles are on-net only.
Airtel has cross network daily SMS bundles on *767#. 5 SMS for Ksh 5, 10 SMS for Ksh 9, 20 SMS for Ksh 15 etc.
Orange SMS bundles are in my opinion the most friendly. By dialing #123#, you get 100 off-net + 150 on-net daily for Ksh 10.

I live near an Airtel tower which accords me excellent 3G coverage. Since Equitel rides on the Airtel network, the Equitel signal is exactly the same as that of the Airtel network. Mine is this good:

Data bundles are a different thing altogether. Following are the data bundles currently available. They all have a 30 days validity.

The Equitel data bundles are simply not competitive.
For instance, 1GB costs 1000/- on Equitel. Orange sells 1GB at 750/-
500MB goes for 500/- at Safaricom, 500/- at Orange and 600/- at both Airtel and Equitel.

At Safaricom, 1000/- will get you 1.5GB + 750MB (night shift) data for use between 10pm and 10am for 2 weeks.

Airtel Kenya gives best value for money. Ksh 20 gets you 100MB + 20SMS valid for 24 hours. Airtel also offers 500MB for 20/- (Night Surf) data valid between 12am and 6am.
Orange too, is a worthy competitor, selling every MB at or below Ksh 1 depending on bundle size purchased. It is worth noting that only Airtel and Orange offer unlimited Internet in Kenya.

Something I strongly feel most of these telcos never get right is that when buying data, a customer rarely thinks as s/he does while considering voice and sms costs. It is true I ask myself what a particular network charges for a 1-minute voice call. Also, what a single sms costs. With data, it's the other way around.

For data, I do not really care what 1MB, 100MB or 1GB costs. What matters is how many MBs I can get for Ksh 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000 etc - even if I'll buy using MPESA, Airtel Money or Orange Money.
In other words, the telco that offers MBs based on the existing money denominations in Kenya wins the data fight. Not on cost, but on convenience and true perceived value. In my opinion, only Safaricom has this covered. And the data users numbers for each network do not lie.

Mobile Banking
This is where the rubber finally meets the road.
Equitel mobile money charges are as follows:
  • Check Balance - Ksh 0
  • Deposit - Ksh 0
  • Send Money to your own account - Ksh 0
  • Send money to other Equity accounts - 1% of the transaction value with a maximum of Ksh 25
  • Send money to non-registered phone number (cash by code) - 1% of the transaction value with a maximum of Ksh 25
  • Pay bill - 1% of the transaction value with a maximum of Ksh 25
  • Send money to other banks - 1% of the transaction value with a maximum of Ksh 25, plus Ksh 10 termination fee
  • Send money to other mobile money account (MPESA, Airtel Money etc) - 1% of the transaction value with a maximum of Ksh 25, plus Ksh 10 termination fee
  • Eazzy Loan - 2% per month interest rate of the amount advanced
  • Withdraw money from agent, ATM, branch -  as per existing fee, depending on transaction and channel used.

We recently witnessed Safaricom increasing MPESA charges for amounts larger than Ksh 1500. MShwari loans attract a 7.5% monthly rate (inasmuch as Safaricom calls this 7.5 % a "facilitation" fee, MShwari loans are payable within 30 days) compared to Equitel's 2% interest rate.

What is the loan duration?
The loan is payable within 30 days. However, you can repay the loan before the due date and borrow again. If you pay the loan in less than 30 days your loan limit qualification will increase.

Do you get charged interest on your MShwari loan?
The MShwari loan DOES NOT attract any interest. The 7.5% charged is a loan facilitation fee payable only once for each loan taken.

Sending money across all networks still is FREE with Airtel Money.
Orange Money too has rates lower than MPESA but then again, Orange has very few subscribers and even fewer Orange Money agents.

I strongly feel that this will be a game-changer. Equity Bank CEO Dr James Mwangi has previously stated that Equitel is first and foremost interested in mobile banking and attendant money transfer services. I feel that is why Equitel is not actively competing in the voice, sms and data services as shown above.

All other mobile money service providers have fees which are way above the Ksh 25 cap that Equitel is charging for amounts larger than Ksh 2500. This, I humbly submit, is what Safaricom is most afraid of.

If you get an Equitel line hoping to replace any of your existing mobile phone providers, you will be disappointed. Equitel voice, SMS and data services, based on pricing are to say the least underwhelming. Personally in my dual SIM handset, I'll stick to Airtel for 3G Internet and voice, and Safaricom for SMS and to receive calls. Neither will I get Thin-SIM, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this post.

As you can see from the screenshots above, I intend to be using my Equitel line via my modem since it cannot replace my Airtel and Safaricom SIMs.
It is interesting to note that only Airtel Money has USSD functionality (through *222#). I urge Equitel to establish USSD functionality for the Equity Mobile Money services. Meanwhile, I'll continue sending money to all other networks using Airtel Money. Should the bad stuff hit the fan someday, I'll get an Eazzy loan ;-) (charges 2% interest compared to Safaricom's 7.5% per month).

Finally, I highly recommend Equitel for mobile banking and mobile money transfer. I take this opportunity to cut Equitel some slack given that the service has just been launched, but whoever reads this and is able to suggest things to the Equity higher-ups or can influence decision making at Equity/Equitel should consider the following as priority items:
  • First impressions are most lasting. It would be great to offer introductory pricing for your voice and data services. Only mobile banking is so far attractive.
  • Think of those not interested in Thin-SIM. Introduce USSD functionality so that those without STK can still access the Equitel service menu. Airtel Money's *222# should offer some inspiration
  • Make it easier to access the most important service - the balance query. I personally suggest the standard *131# which Airtel, Orange and yuMobile uses.
  • Avail all the relevant information on the Equitel website (not yet operational as I write this). I also note that the Equitel Facebook and Twitter accounts are still not operational. Not everyone has the time to meticulously search for information about Equitel on social media and across the web, it's time Equitel did the necessary to market this amazing mobile banking product.
So there you have it guys. Equitel only has the best mobile banking and money transfer product/service, which cwould be perfect if accessible via USSD as well.
For voice, sms and data, just stick to your current mobile phone service provider.