Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The dynamics of cell phone air time

One definitive conclusion I can make: if you are working in Guatemala, that is, doing research, it is a given that your Guatemalan colleagues, friends, lovers, hosts, and acquaintances will rarely, if ever, have "saldo" (airtime) on their pre-pay cell phones. Maybe you will be lucky and know a few people who for professional reasons or class position have a cell phone with a monthly plan. But the rest of the country goes from one 10-quetzal recharge to another, which means that most of the time, if you want to talk to people, you have to do the calling ... to take a line from the infamous statement about voting patterns in Chicago, "call early, call often". Or rely upon text messaging, since text messages are much less expensive than phone calls. And, as I learned, you should make sure that you give people airtime if they are going to be making any calls on your behalf -- and preferably before they have to ask you. I learned this the hard way.

Guatemala's three cell phone companies -- Tigo, Claro and Movistar -- all run on different systems, and each one gives you certain benefits and discounts for calling within their network. So, for example, I have Tigo, and it is cheaper for me to call other Tigo phones. I sometimes get free minutes to call other Tigo phones -- but this requires trying to remember who of the few dozen people one knows has the same phone company. Some people, for this reason, have more than one phone -- so they can make and receive calls from different people. The other day a compañero from the resistance movement in Huehuetenango was explaining why he had a Claro phone and a Tigo phone. The Claro phone was better for receiving calls from the U.S. (since you get charged for receiving international calls, apparently) -- for the same amount of money that would yield you 40 minutes of airtime for international calls on a Tigo phone, you would get 60 minutes on a Claro phone. However, Tigo generally has better coverage within Guatemala -- better signal, fewer blackout areas.  All the phone companies offer promotions, usually once a week nationwide -- days when they offer triple airtime (you spend 10 quetzales and get 30 quetzales worth of airtime). Then there are regional and local promotions, usually during the patron saint feast in a particular town (so those aren't offer nationwide but just in a specific locality).  But, as I have noted in earlier blogs, airtime seems to get eaten up very quickly; you get charged, for example, for checking to see how much airtime you have left (more than a few times I have tried to check on how much airtime I had left only to get a recorded message, "You do not have enough airtime for that transaction."). 

However, very few people seem to have much airtime on their phones. Most people I know live fairly close to the bone, and even the people who live more comfortably do not seem to have airtime on their phones. The former situation is easy to understand -- having a phone is essential for most people, but so is food, and then there are often a lot of unforeseen expenses that eat up anyone's modest earnings or savings. The latter situation -- people who do not appear to be in extremely strained economic circumstances, who have cars or motorcycles and computers and modems -- is a little more opaque to me.  

You would think that I would understand this better by now. But I realized with a shock that I still take things for granted. A friend had offered to make some contacts for me, to facilitate some of my research. We had talked about this some weeks back; I had called him shortly after I arrived in Guatemala and we had been in touch several times since then. I wasn't certain about the specific dates when I would be in his area but I had a general idea. However, when I arrived and we sat down to go over my plans, he hadn't yet concretized any of the contacts we had talked about. After talking for a while I realized that he hadn't done it because he didn't have extra airtime on his phone -- and I immediately thought to myself "Why didn't I realize that would be an issue and just buy him some?"  You can easily put airtime on someone else's phone as long as you know what phone company they use; you can just go to any store that offers electronic recharges, of which there are about half a dozen on every block, and give them the phone number to which you want to add airtime. It doesn't have to be your own phone, it can be any number at all, but you do have to have the right phone company, and I have several times done this for friends when I knew they didn't have airtime and needed to make calls. As soon as I understood this, we put some airtime on his phone (more than he would need to make the calls he was doing on my behalf).  So, another lesson for me. 

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