Econet Wireless, vanishing airtime, POTRAZ, and transparency

L.S.M Kabweza Avatar
The details

Saturday, 30 March: It’s the Easter weekend. Hundreds of outraged Econet subscribers take to social media to protest at Econet for subtracting unused airtime credit from their accounts. Econet doesn’t respond to these messages until,

Sunday, 31 March evening: It’s an apology is issued of Facebook for “challenges some of our customers are currently facing on the network, affecting airtime credit.” Engineers are working to resolve the issue, says the update. Those not on Econet’s Facebook page (and those not watching their airtime) have no idea what just happened.

Fools day, evening: Another Facebook update from Econet says again that they are sorry and that they are processing refunds. Later that evening, another update assures Facebook users Econet has refunded affected subscribers. SMS messages also go out to affected customers. I for example get a message that says my data usage was overcharged on 30 March. I have no idea what exactly this means of course. What with the already needlessly confusing bundle & out-of-bundle tariffs.

April 2: Another SMS message to affected subscribers says they have given additional free data. It doesn’t say how much I lost and how much they refunded, or what/how much this “additional free” is.

Then, done. Crisis averted. Like nothing ever happened. TIZ!

Naturally, we were curious about the extent of the problem. So we contacted Econet a few days later to get the details; when exactly it happened, how many subscribers affected, if it had been fixed. Here’s the official response we got:

An unexpected technical challenge, which has since been resolved, was experienced on the billing platform, resulting in some customers being overcharged for data usage. We are engaging with the few customers still experiencing challenges, and any outstanding issues will be resolved.

In short “we’re not saying more!” Goes without saying how worried this got us. The follow up email was not responded to. Hoping the local telecoms regulator, POTRAZ, would be worried as much, we contacted them for comment and asked if they were doing anything.  “Received with thanks,” came the email response. Then… like nothing ever happened. This is Zimbabwe!

Later, someone we spoke to off the record at POTRAZ told us they were contacting/had contacted Econet on the matter. Then… silence. It’s been 3 weeks.

So what did we expect? Well, we think Econet should have come out and volunteered more information in a press statement about what happened. They should have even gone as far as assuring subscribers that they are working with named external auditors to ensure all affected subscribers were adequately compensated, that the system glitch had been fixed, and that as far as they could reasonably tell, the same problem would not happen again.  How do we trust them without such transparency?

System glitches do happen. All software is buggy to an extent. The fair thing to do is to be reasonably transparent when your software eats people’s monies. Especially if you count as subscribers a number more than half the population of the country. The simple detailed truth would only serve Econet well.

What would have happened if subscribers hadn’t taken to social media to complain? What about if this had affected just 50 people who all didn’t notice? How do we even know this was the first time? What mechanisms does POTRAZ have in place to ensure these glitches are detected when they happen? Does POTRAZ audit the MNO billing systems? If they do, wouldn’t it be great to assure subscribers via a press statement that technical audits do happen and that if any such problem would occur they’d pick it even without a social media outrage.

Econet is the same company that operates the largest mobile money service in the country. Surely if there’s a company that should understand how such an incident affects our confidence in the company as a whole, it’s them. Or maybe they do very well and the silence is a deliberate move.

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  1. Chris Mberi

    Disclosure: I love Econet.

    For a company so nimble at spamming about nothing and products via their SMS, surely this was going to be good SPAM for a change. SMS was supposed to come first before, not so accessible, social media…

  2. Culprit

    I think bad customer service is what happened and it’s no help that the regulator appears to be a toothless bulldog and this will be treated as a rare incident. Would it hurt the company’s bottom line if they gave 20 to 50 MB for say three days free to make up for the serious inconvenience doubt it… Generally Econet has never admitted being wrong under any circumstances so to be outspoken and inform subscribers about such events would be no different to hell freezing over.

  3. Wonder

    I doubt if it is the first time , They take advantage of poor or no monitoring mechanisms on our part.The way we IT professionals struggle with Ecoweb/Liquid corporate bandwidths, what more when they are dealing with a population where 90% of them does not know what a MB is?

  4. vaGudoguru

    Portraz is sleeping on the job

  5. Cde_Hero

    Potraz would be clueless of cause
    Kana pane kwakafiwa, ndikokuPotraz
    You will only see them raise there heard when it comes to trivial issues, like Makandiwa’s SMS systems and banning blackberry.
    Not to mention that Potraz top level management is on Econet’s payroll

    1. Dogstar

      POTRAZ on Econet payroll?

    2. spencer

      so delusional.., u heard that from where?

      1. internetwatchdog

        who doesnt know that Potraz is on Econet’s payroll. wake up guys….

        1. tinma@n

          Only people who know are those that dream up and create conspiracies. They usually fall short when it comes to citing the source of information.

          Otherwise, what Econet did becomes theft when they choose not to be transparent. Remember, they boast of milions of subscribers… even 50c from each on that day for 2million subscribers is alot of money. Most lucrative thievery these days is achieved by Econet

  6. macdchip

    And where is the minister responsible for the post?

    If econet had called them for a meeting in a splashy hotel somewhere they would have been falling on each other singing how great econet is.

    Vese vanotaura vari muhomwe dze.econet

  7. spencer

    As for me i rcvd an apology and my airtime was credited to my account (number), i doubt the other operators wld hv done that. Just becoz it wasnt publicised in the papers or becoz you were declined information by the operator and regulator does not mean no action was taken, otherwise airtime wld nt hv bn credited.

  8. Dogstar

    I complain on FB. Tired of back and forth issues. Glad they have a FB page. it will make them work on subscribers issues. Help Line is non existent. FB now officially my customer complaints preferred platform for companies.

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