One of the first major purchases of a PCV’s life in Kazakhstan is their cell phone. Within the first month, we found ourselves dropping about fifty dollars on a phone. Most of us chose the cheapest model possible: an old Nokia, screen with no color, no camera, no music. Just the basics (and a few games. Rapid Roll score of 4340. Try beating that. And if you do, please don’t tell me or else my addiction might start up again).
However, I think this purchase comes way too early for us to truly appreciate the cell phone culture here in Kazakhstan. For young people, your phone is like a status symbol. They may not have iPods or notebook computers, but most have a cell phone with a sweet color screen, that plays music, and of course has a camera. And these phones aren’t cheap, probably costing about the same as in America. 200 to 300 dollars. Although considering that the income level hear is just a fraction of America, that can be about one month’s salary from a regular job.
Once you have your sweet phone though, you have to choose your company. There are no ATTs, Alltel (yeah, that is (or at least was) a cell phone company back in the states), or Verizon here. We got Beeline, Activ, KCell, Pathword, and Neo (All of them usually written with the Roman alphabet). And all of the volunteers are encouraged to get Beeline because that’s what all the staff has and all the previous volunteers have as well. Because here in Kstan, the network makes a huge difference.
I’ve heard Pathword (one volunteer said it reminds them of the movie the Cable Guy) has a monthly plan of 1000 tenge in which you can call any other Pathword person for free. But other than that, you usually pay per minute here. That makes calling people expensive. But you don’t get a monthly bill, you have to buy cards with say 500 or 1000 tenge on them. Then you scratch off the back of the card and type in the number on your phone. It then adds the credit to your phone’s account.
There are various plans available from each company. But the average rate is probably about 20 cents a minute for phone calls. Usually it is more expensive to call a phone that has another company’s service. Text messages range from about 5 cents to 10 cents a text depending on whether you are texting someone who has a similar cell phone plan or not.
And of course, once you became really cool (at least in my mind), you start getting different plans with different companies. A lot of local people I know have a Beeline and an Active number (despite different names, I think KCell and Active are the same company, or at least have an alliance of some sort). But you don’t even need two phones to have two numbers. You just buy two simcards and switch them out when you want to call someone with that particular company. I’m not nearly that cool yet, but I’ve thought about it. (I’ve actually thought about getting another Beeline card as well and having a different plan that’s better for long conversations. I have an excel spreadsheet that tells me I’ll save money in the long run, but I’m not entirely committed on that yet.)
But for now, I have my simple Beeline plan and my simple Nokia phone. While lacking music or a camera, it does have a flashlight built in. And that’s good enough for me.