Locally, perceiving zero rated content packages, Facebook specific and WhatsApp specific bundled internet as anything less than positive feels like looking a gift horse in the mouth. It’s like pouring cold water over something that should be celebrated. But let’s have the net neutrality conversation for a minute.
These zero rated websites and app specific bundles create an internet that is uneven. Right now, in Zimbabwe, Facebook and WhatsApp are cheaper than, Google Plus and WeChat. So it’s no surprise therefore that anyone sharing something they hope many people locally will see, put it on Facebook. Either that, or your audience simply can’t afford to view it.
So if, for example, WeChat right now want a chance at being as popular as WhatsApp is to Econet users, they’ll have to beg Econet to be bundled too. Econet might ofcourse tell them ‘no’ and argue that it’s actually not the bundles that made WhatsApp popular. WhatsApp was popular already and Econet simply made a popular service available to more people at a lower price. They’d say that Econet is actually sacrificing some revenue to make this possible in the hope that subscribers stay on the network and use other paid services like voice and YouTube.
And Econet would be right in arguing this way. But WeChat could have a counter offer. WeChat could pay Econet money to be bundled. Or simply zero rated. It’s hard ofcourse to see a mobile operator saying no to an additional revenue stream that’s just come from nowhere. And seeing WeChat is as deep pocketed as they come, it’s not far fetched at all for such a scenario to play out.
WeChat are of course not what we are concerned about. They can handle up-fronting big money to have their app reach more internet users. What matters is the startup competing against WhatsApp, Facebook or WeChat themselves. Or worse still, what about when your startup is competing against a mobile operator funded internet startup?
A mobile operator funded internet startup?
Yes, mobile operators are themselves in the trenches hoping to create the next big internet startup in Africa. That’s what MTN, Millicom and Rocket Internet are. All three are mobile operators first and then internet startups. They are doing eCommerce all over the African internet trying to catch up with Naspers who have been home on the internet for a while now.
In Zimbabwe, Econet will either start more of their own internet startups, or will at least be investing in/buying them. That’s what EcoSchool is; an internet startup selling books and internet to students. it was actually inspired a lot by a smaller startup called Mazwi. It’s not a question of ‘if’ mobile networks will get into content services. Not even a ‘when’. It’s going on right now.
Net neutrality and the precedence of the Banks vs EcoCash
In Zimbabwe, a lot of people have largely ignored the monopolistic take-it-or-leave-it game Econet has been playing on the banks; the almost impossible conditions for neutral USSD access to subscribers. That’s because the banks are easy to hate. When a bully is finally taking a beating at his own game, only a few spectators realise that instead of cheering on, they should be concerned about the new reign coming. Few realise that instead of hating the game, they’re hating the player and that, even though this banker has been beaten down, the game continues and it might just have gotten more ruthless.
It’s not just the banks. Econet has been known to want to vet what value added service gets onto their network and doesn’t. No one but Econet has an idea what this vetting involves. Could be how moral or christian your idea is. Could be based on an idea they are thinking to do themselves. Looking to launch a VAS service that connects atheists to each other? Too bad! What about an sending health related SMSs for a monthly fee. That too, no.
But you could argue that Econet not opening up VAS is just a sign of an unorganised VAS providers market. You’d likely be right and wrong. Remember the banks have been organised in wanting neutral USSD access. Did they get it? What difference would an organised body of VAS providers make?
Monopoly hates neutrality
If Econet had 30% market share in the country, this wouldn’t be a problem. They however have more than 65%, and if the other networks continue sleeping (in the case of our dear operator owned by we the people), and focusing on boardroom politics (in the case of the other), Econet is set to get even more market share.
More market share in itself is not a bad thing. On the contrary it is good there’s an operator that takes business seriously enough. It’s a good thing and it would be very silly to even start thinking that Econet get less aggressive or invest less in expanding. Econet’s hypergrowth is a good thing for Zimbabwe.
But as they say, with great power comes great responsibility, and so far, Econet is growing so fast, they don’t seem to be paying any attention to the fact they may fast be becoming the many bullies they fought – TelOne, Government, Banks and indeed Exclusion.
What do we recommend?
As good as they are to the consumers of the internet, these zero rated websites and app specific bundles are creating an internet where providers will decide what subscribers can access. They are creating consumers that think it’s normal for certain websites to be cheaper than others. On a continent where many are accessing the internet for the first time on such a model, this is dangerous.
Leaving it to the operators to decide which app or website is cheaper to access will kill innovation. Especially as the operators are themselves now a player in creating internet and content companies.
Africa has an opportunity at creating a healthy startup ecosystem where, just armed with a great idea, anyone has a shot at accessing internet subscribers without begging or paying large sums of money to a gatekeeper. Our economy needs this. it is therefore a problem that using technologies like deep packet inspection, mobile operators are right now a gatekeeper.
We recommend that at least the net neutrality conversation starts to take place on the continent. That regulators like POTRAZ must pay attention to it at least. Monopolies are only a problem when there’s inadequate regulation. Internet access in Africa is largely via mobile. This is urgent.