Tradeoffs between time, money shaped by tradition

In my experience, any mid- to long-term visitor to a foreign country needs to promptly grasp the mobile phone situation: what providers exist, what systems they operate on, and whether your current phone can work on the networks of these varied providers.

After all, mobile phones are shockingly ubiquitous in many places you may not expect them to be—before I arrived in Almaty I certainly did not anticipate that even street sweepers would have their own phones—and lacking a mobile phone leaves you feeling isolated in more places than just the U.S.

I, too, had to go through this discovery process, and I learned that Kazakhstan has two major cell phone operators: KCell, owned by the local monopolist phone company, and Beeline, which is owned and operated by the large Russian mobile phone operator of the same name. In addition, there are a few smaller operators that compete either on price or unique features like cheaper calls abroad.

Both Beeline and KCell work much like prepaid phone plans do in the U.S., in that users put a certain quantity of money on their account and then have the chance to spend it. Happily there are no contracts or other such headaches. In addition, both Beeline and KCell offer vastly discounted rates for calls made on their own networks versus those made to the other.

So far, this sounds fairly normal and boring, and you’re probably wondering why I even mention all these details. Well, here’s the rub, and one of the things that truly surprised me when I came to Kazakhstan: I would estimate that more than half of the people who own a mobile phone at all there in fact own two (or more!) phones, and have numbers with both of the major operators. Indeed, this trend is so common that several phone manufacturers actively advertise phones that can use two SIM cards (Subscriber Identity Modules, the small chip-containing cards that, in GSM networks, supply information about your provider and telephone number to your phone) simultaneously.

To me, this was absolutely bizarre. I mean, yes, it is substantially cheaper to communicate with people who are on the same network as you, but that is also the case in the U.S., and I don’t see anyone walking around with phones from both Verizon and AT&T. Essentially, the people who own multiple phones are trading off the convenience of using a single cell phone for the amount of money they save on phone calls.

This particular tradeoff might be a somewhat unusual one, but in fact much of our life is built around trading money for convenience. We no longer hunt or gather our own food; indeed, most of us don’t even raise our own plants or animals these days. Instead, we go to a supermarket and trade our hard-earned dollars for the convenience of buying meat sliced into convenient chunks and packaged in plastic.

Likewise, when we decide to order pizza or go out to a restaurant for dinner, we are paying a price that is in most cases higher than the amount we would pay to prepare an equivalent meal at home, because getting a delicious meal at a restaurant is more convenient than spending three hours in the kitchen.

I suspect the vast majority of us are not clamoring for a return to the days of growing our own wheat and corn, so clearly some conveniences are well worth the money. But there is a continuum of cost versus convenience, and various people occupy very different points along this continuum.

The question of how people decide where they place themselves in this spectrum is interesting for several reasons. For one, if you are creating a product of any sort, this is a key question for you: does your product make enough of a difference in a person’s life for it to be more than just a “nice to have,” or is it something that appeals to nothing more than, say, a person’s vanity?

But the question is applicable to more than just entrepreneurs and product designers. Understanding why people act the way they do can provide insights that are useful to all people in all disciplines.

What, then, affects a person’s choice of tradeoffs? Well, money is undoubtedly one of the key factors. After all, if you cannot afford to pay a person to mow your lawn, you have no choice but to do it yourself. And indeed, research on wealth shows that more and more wealthy people are choosing to pay exorbitant amount of money for things that save them time, rather than “typical” luxuries like Rolexes and fancy cars.

Another factor seems to be ability: I don’t currently have the skills necessary to change my oil, so it would take me much more effort to do so than to pay $20 at Jiffy Lube. But if working on cars were a hobby and I could change my oil with just a modicum of effort, perhaps I would opt to do so myself.

I imagine there are many more factors involved in making the decision, and for each case and each person the reasoning will be different. That brings me to the original question: Why do people use multiple cell phones in Kazakhstan? My feeling is that the reason is the simplest one of all: It’s what people are used to. Whatever the reasons why this situation came about, these days the money doesn’t seem to be the key issue, at least not for most of the population. Now, they just have two phones because all their friends do.

And that is a key lesson: No matter what the other circumstances are, 99 percent of the time people will just go on doing what they always have been. C’est la vie.