Tigo Tanzania, the East African mobile operator has announced that it will now be offering all its 10 million subscribers free access to the instant message platform, WhatsApp.
In its statement, Tigo has explained that all of its mobile broadband subscribers that use the weekly and monthly bundles will have free access to the Instant messaging platform. The mobile operator hopes to encourage subscribers that do not have access to smartphones to buy the low-cost data handsets that it is selling in its Tigo shops.
This freebie isn’t the first of its kind from Tigo. In 2014, the operator introduced zero-rate access to Facebook in Swahili, the ethnic language in the country. At the time, the objective was to introduce a new wave of subscribers to social networking through the most popular platform in the category.
The free access to WhatsApp though new from Tigo, isn’t a new concept in African telecoms either. South African mobile operator Cell C had the same offer which ran only as a promotion until 2015. It was eventually ended and replaced by a 5 Rand monthly bundle.
No cutoff date or schedule for the reintroduction of a paid WhatsApp has been specified by Tigo. Perhaps as broadband traffic increases, that action might be taken, making the Free WhatsApp just another example of introducing a “telecoms gateway drug.”
Despite what Tigo and Cell C have done to offer the IM service for free, the majority of telecoms operators in Africa have had reservations about the service, pointing to it as a major contributor to falling voice revenues. In Zimbabwe, this sentiment has been carried by listed operator Econet, State-owned operator NetOne and also acknowledged by POTRAZ, the telecoms regulator.
Since voice services are the leading contributor of revenue, the criticism against WhatsApp and other Over the Top Services that offer alternatives to making calls, has prompted industry lobbying in countries like South Africa and Morocco, where the State regulators have been petitioned to consider taxes on these services as payment for the free-loading that they currently enjoy on the operators’ telecoms infrastructure.