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Tech Lab

Congo’s cellular service answers the call

Spend your life in America, and you come to expect clean water, good roads, reliable electricity, and good phone service. Spend a couple of weeks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and you come to expect polluted water, dirt roads, power failures — and good phone service.

My wife hails from Kinshasa, one of the largest cities in Africa, and most of her family still lives there. Of course we had to visit. But I worried about losing contact with the outside world. No need. In a New York-sized city of desperately poor people, nearly everybody had some kind of cellphone, and the networks perform about as well as in the states. I found plenty of options for staying plugged in, including a few that could come in useful here at home.

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To make sure my wife and I had reliable phones, I bought a couple of low-end “burners” for $30 apiece at Amazon.com. These cheap Samsungs were “unlocked,” so I could use them with any carrier. They were only good for voice calls and text messages, but they fit easily in a shirt pocket and lasted a couple of days on one battery charge. We gave them away before coming home, but I should purchase another pair to keep around the house as backup.

These cheap phones used a technical standard called GSM. Such phones let you insert a little chip called a SIM card to access a local network. Here in the United States, two big carriers, AT&T Inc. and T-Mobile US Inc., run GSM networks. The other two giants, Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel Corp., use an incompatible system called CDMA. But GSM is the gold standard in most of the world.

In Congo, I could choose from four different GSM carriers. And the competition is ferocious. Nobody signs up for two-year contracts; phone service is pay-as-you-go, and you cannot walk 50 feet without encountering a street vendor selling prepaid airtime. For a couple of bucks — US dollars cheerfully accepted — you got a SIM card. Then you pay for airtime. The service I picked, Vodacom, charged 15 cents per minute for local calls, as well as calls to the United States.

To buy minutes, you handed over 5 or 10 or 20 dollars, and got a small piece of cardboard, like a lottery ticket. Scrape away the scratch-off patch to read a 16-digit number. Then punch this into the phone to get credit for the minutes you bought.

Hiawatha Bray/Globe Staff

Street vendors selling cellphone minutes are easy to find in Africa.

My US cellphone is under a two-year contract, but I learned to like buying phone service in small, inexpensive doses. However, the phones could die mid-call when your time ran out. I would dash outside to buy more minutes, from street vendors who only accepted cash. It is much easier in America, where prepaid vendors accept credit cards and can automatically add more minutes when you run low.

The hotel’s promised Wi-Fi Internet service barely worked. Good thing I’d brought along my HTC One smartphone. It runs on the AT&T network and uses GSM, so it is Congo-compatible. But using a US cell service overseas means paying ruinous “international roaming” fees — $2 per minute for phone calls, or $30 for a measly 120 megabytes of Internet access.

Local rates are much cheaper, but I had to unlock my phone from AT&T. Luckily I obtained an unlock code from AT&T before leaving. Despite a recent federal ruling that unlocking phones is illegal, it is all right if the phone company agrees.

In the United States, customers unhappy with AT&T’s service can switch to rival GSM carrier T-Mobile, and vice versa. In Kinshasa, there is a lot more competition, but I stuck with Vodacom. For $20, I got a gigabyte of Internet data. The latest 4G LTE data technology has not made it to Kinshasa, but the 3G service worked with hardly a hitch. I learned to economize — no watching YouTube, for instance. And I set the browser so it did not display photographs on Web pages. This left more than enough data to keep up with e-mail and read the headlines.

My wife was not so lucky. Her aging smartphone came from Sprint, a CDMA carrier, and would not work in Kinshasa. Sprint and fellow CDMA carrier Verizon Wireless now offer newer phones that include a GSM system for overseas trips. My wife just purchased such a phone, so she is ready for a return visit.

Two weeks in Kinshasa left me homesick for clean air, safe tap water, and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. But whenever I fired up my phone, I felt right at home.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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