If you are like many South Africans, you are probably locked into a mobile phone contract for a number of reasons. But even if you know that you should be on a different plan, how do you decide which one is going to be the best for you?

This state of affairs isn’t helped by the fact that there are five or six mobile operators to choose from, depending on how you count, each with their own packages that are constantly changing and often poorly documented. With mobile contracts often in the four figure range for decent amounts of data, making the wrong choice could leave you well out of pocket.

If only you could Siri or Google Now to pick a contract for you, based on up-to-date tariffs and your current usage.

Coincidentally, that’s almost exactly what Joburg startup Tariffic is doing.

The company currently specialises in analysing corporate mobile phone bills to assess what operator and package a firm should be on. It’s been in business for three years, when it was spun out of Saicom, a fixed line solutions company.

And its next move, which is a couple of months off, is to take its technology to everyday folk. It’s promising that if you upload three months’ worth of bills, it’ll be able to work out the best deal for you.

Cutting costs

“Consumers know they’re being ripped off, corporates know their bills are too high,” explains Tariffic CEO Antony Seeff. “They just don’t have the tools to do anything about it.”

The tools Seeff and his team have created dig compare a current phone bill with what’s available on the market and then produce a cost comparison so that you can select the best deal. It’s no easy feat, and complicated by two problems specific to the South African market.

First of all, buying a mobile contract here isn’t at all straightforward. The base contracts almost always compromise in one form or another. Want data? Many decent data packages have cripplingly small number of voice minutes attached. Buying voice? Expect to hit the dreaded out of bundle data charges.

One way or another, the chances are your network is getting more from you than you planned for. No wonder there’s interest in ludicrously expensive four figure “unlimited” contracts (which are often anything but unlimited).

“If most people had the right data bundles they’d be fine,” says Seeff, “Most people spend a lot on out of bundle data. Operators are making all their money from out of bundle rates.”

To fix that problem, Tariffic’s engine has been built to take account of the myriad choices which present themselves when you look at voice contracts with data bundle add-ons. When networks call you offering to optimise your bill, Seeff says you can bet they aren’t taking this into account themselves.

Indeed, he’s a big fan of Vodacom’s Talk Packages, which aren’t widely advertised by the network itself (they aren’t on the front page of the website, for example). More than half of the recommendations Tariffic’s software made which encouraged customers to switch to Vodacom in January were for a basic Talk package and a data bundle bought separately.

Which highlights the second issue that Tariffic has had to work around. While operators are obliged to lodge details of current tariffs with the telecoms regulator ICASA, that body isn’t currently publishing up-to-date information for the public to work with. Even if they were, promotions, bundles and extras wouldn’t necessarily be a part of that. So Tariffic has had to build its own data set and keep it up to date.

As a result, Seeff says the firm is sitting on a unique wealth of data and analytical tools and it’s not too precious with them either – the market for its use is much larger than it can reach by itself.

“We’ve always seen ourselves primarily as a technology company,” says Seeff, “We are very happy for people to white-label our product and have had a lot of interest from resellers. We’re looking at introducing a commission based model too.”

Can you cut your bill?

Right now, Tariffic’s product is entirely business focussed. With each new customer, Seeff’s team take bills for every handset in the firm and produce an individual report for each user, recommending specific packages to switch to and estimating savings that will be made (at a cost of R600 per line for the firm involved).

One unnamed customer’s bill we saw ran to R170 000 a month for 266 mobile phones. Tariffic’s calculations reckoned that it could be reduced to R52 000. Over 24 months, that works out to a saving of R2.8m.

Right now, there are two plans for expansion. The first is international. Dealing with the Byzantine structures of the South African market has given Seeff a product he thinks has potential overseas. Belgium, he says, has more than 80 mobile operators (the majority are “virtual” operators, in that they own no infrastructure and rent space from major players). Tariffic, he believes, could cope with that.

The second, much more interestingly, is the plan to open up Tariffic’s engine as a consumer product for anyone to use. Initially planned for last year, Seeff says he’s hopeful that it will finally be launched in a couple of months.

CEO Antony Seef (right) with "Jack of all Trades" and marketing manager Adam Sachs.
CEO Antony Seeff (right) with “Jack of all Trades” and marketing manager Adam Sachs.

“We think this would be a world first,” he says, “Definitely a South African first, giving consumers a chance to see right through the market.”

The current version of the portal allows anyone to upload three itemised bills, which are parsed and returned with a message about whether or not Tariffic thinks it can save you money, and how much. The catch is that you’ll then have to pay – a suggested price of R149 is in the air at the moment – for the full report.

“We will have a freemium model. You can upload you itemized bill for free, and we’ll show you some cool stats and data to show you that we have really analysed your bill.”

This sets Tariffic aside – most comparison sites make their money through referral payments. So if you click on a Cell C recommendation, for example, Cell C pays the comparison site a small finders fee. That’s something Tariffic is keen to avoid, and while it does mean an initial outlay on behalf of the customer, it suggests independence and – if you save more than the fee over 24 months – should be a worthwhile investment.

Whether or not people will feel like they’re getting value for money will remain to be seen and there are a couple of other issues that potential users will need to be aware of too. The first is that Tariffic only looks at network charges, and won’t take into account anything you’re paying for the handset – that’s removed from the equation. So if, for example, MTN has an unmissable deal on the next iPhone you might want to ignore the advice that Telkom’s calls are cheaper (and Seeff says Telkom is leading the pack at the moment for value).

Secondly, right now, the comparison engine only looks at contract data. There’s no support at all for pay-as-you-go deals which generally offer the best value, as “free” data bonuses for topping-up your account are easy to find.

A third area of expansion which Seeff is considering is the idea of approaching operators with Tariffic’s technology. So far, however, he’s not had much success.

“We could help operators determine how new packages they are planning would stack up against the competition,” he explains, “but where service providers are making all their money is in out-of-bundle rates – and that is where they are going to hate us.”

[Image – CC by 2.0/Ron Bennetts]
Charlie started his professional life as a motoring journalist for a community newspaper in Mpumalanga, Charlie explored different journalistic angles since his entry into the fast-paced world of publishing in 2006. While fostering a passion for the arts, Charlie developed a love for technology – both which allowed him to serve as Entertainment and Technology Editor for an online publication. Charlie has since been heavily involved in consumer technology for various websites and publications. He thoroughly enjoys World War II films and cerebral documentaries; aviation; photography and indie music. Oh yes, and he also has a rather strange obsession with collecting coffee mugs from his travels.