I just wanted to make a simple phone call...

Some things really should be a state monopoly. Here in Cartagena, Colombia, there are three major cellular telephone operators, Comcel, Tigo, and Movistar. Not unlike Sprint, AT and T, T-mobile and the rest of the New York carriers vying to be the one to drop your call today, except that part of the corporate strategy here for grabbing market share is to penalize anyone who isn't your subscriber every time they call someone who is. In other words, since I'm on Comcel, I can call anyone else with a Comcel SIM card at a quite reasonable rates. If I call someone on Tigo, or Movistar, however, I get whacked. The first digits of the telephone number indicate the carrier; numbers beginning 310 and 311 belong to Comcel, for instance.

An entire business has sprung up to cope with this absurdity; on almost every block is a small-time entrepreneur who has gathered enough capital together to buy at least one phone and SIM on each network. The simplest of these businesses consists of a woman sitting somewhere in the shade in a plastic armchair, with a little disco waist pouch on her lap overflowing with the cheapest Nokias. The more splendid have a cart of some kind, or a card table protected from the brutal Caribbean sun by a small awning. Customers, even those who may own their own phone, cluster around these impromptu booths when they need to call someone outside of their own network, or simply because they have depleted their pay-as-you go funds and don't wish to make the lump-sum investment to recharge their accounts.

"Wait, let me get this straight: it costs much more to call some numbers than others?"
"Claro," of course, she said, as if I was a small child who understood nothing.
"How strange," I said, but instead it was me that she thought strange. It had never occurred to her, I think, that it would ever be any other way.

To avoid any funny business, like an unannounced call to Australia, the proprietor dials for you. As soon as someone picks up at the other end, you are handed the phone, and you begin to explain why you are not calling from your own telephone number. The less spry proprietors attach their telephones to their chair with lengths of string. The most deluxe operations have chains, an unintended metaphor for your relationship with your "service provider."


Africolombia said...

Dear friend Richard.
is better from my point of view that in Colombia there is a single operator or service unique.

we must also analyze the manner or form as people seek to live a livelihood.

as this woman and many people here in Colombia that have no employment and unemployment is the daily bread.

for many of us in a way economists. if a call from your cell phone here is my Mobile Comcel.

if I want to call a Tigo for example is more expensive for me.
then looks for a way to use the economists the call service street.

They say it's a cold world said...

Dairo Barriosnuevo, who I had the pleasure of meeting last night, pointed out the delicious irony that under this system, the mobile phone has been immobilized...