Computer cross talk: Phones talking to computers


In this age of technology, you need not visit Multichoice offices to pay your DSTV or GOtv subscriptions. Your mobile phone can do the legwork for you. All you need is enough credit on your mobile money account.

This is possible because of the beauty of the mobile telephone network. GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) network is multi-faceted; other than just carrying voice, it is a tunnel for SMS, internet rides along on it and it can talk to systems of other service providers like banks.

NBS Easy Mobile banking, NBM MO626 Ice, Airtel Money and TNM Mpamba are all examples of service providers’ systems that enjoy a ride on GSM networks. Next time you hear some computer wizkid throw in the term ‘Unstructured Supplementary Service Data, (USSD)’, do not be scared, it is just some immodest way to describe the same thing.


USSD opens a direct and real-time connection between your mobile phone and the service provider’s computer system. This is different from SMS. When you send an SMS to my phone, it does not come to my phone direct. It is first received by my mobile service provider’s computer system that stores it and then sends it to me. This is why there are times when you receive a notification from your mobile provider that your SMS could not be delivered.

The same is true of email systems. It is for this reason that SMS and email systems are called ‘store and send’.

USSD is not a new technological miracle; it is as old as mobile phone network itself. It is just that it is now being packaged in some new and interesting regalia. That is the thing about technology these days. Some chap in USA decided to package internet in social media wrappers and called it Facebook and we all marveled as if the internet had just been rediscovered.


Some SMS-crazy fellow designed a way that routes SMS via the internet and not the mobile network to run away from SMs charges, called it WhatsApp and that was as though the wheel has been reinvented.

Whenever you top up your mobile phone using scratch cards, you use codes like *111*scratch number# or *136*Scratch number# depending on whether you are on TNM or Airtel. These are examples of USSD codes that let your phone talk to billing systems of your mobile service provider.

USSD now connects your DSTV decoder when you make payment using mobile money. What this means is that there is gateway between mobile money and DSTV subscription service.

If you need to know your electricity or water bill today, you either have to telephone the utility company or visit their website. Excuse me, that is old fashioned! Ours is a USSD-centric world. ESCOM, BWB and LWB must be trendy. The reason why we still have long queues in utility companies paying points is that while you are able to pay using mobile money, their billing systems are not on USSD; it can take hours before their systems realise that you made a payment.

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