WhatsApp was down for about half an hour to an hour depending on who you talk to. The outage also affected Instagram as well and highlighted the need for Econet, NetOne and Telecel to roll out a unified (Telegram, Signal and WhatsApp) messaging app bundle for the following reasons.
WhatsApp is pretty much the internet in Zim
In Zimbabwe, WhatsApp is the internet and the local MNOs (Econet, NetOne and Telecel) created bundles for WhatsApp and other social media apps because they were popular.
The popularity of WhatsApp however far exceeds that of the social media sites/apps like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The biggest reason for this is that WhatsApp (dollar for dollar) is far cheaper than SMS and GSM calls as well doing what the ordinary Zimbabwean needs day-to-day. Anyone with a device that can run it (feature phones to smartphones) can chat and call with anyone for much less than the alternatives.
Comparing costs a WhatsApp call uses around 740 KB/minute according to a report by Android Authority. A GSM call on the other hand will set you back around ZWL$6.4175 per minute which if you look at the latest Econet data bundle prices is a dollar and some change more than a 4MB Daily WhatsApp bundle.
For the same amount, you can get a WhatsApp bundle and you can talk to far more people (via chat and call) than you would via GSM call. This relative affordability and convenience meant that Zimbabweans swarmed in their droves to WhatsApp.
These bundles made sure that you can use your data specifically for WhatsApp without it being used by any other app and it created a problem.
Zimbabwe is heavily dependant on WhatsApp. Even before the pandemic, WhatsApp was a gateway for business as well as regular communication. Informal traders (who make up a large portion of the economy) had a relatively cheap market place by way of groups and contacts to push their wares.
If you walk around now you’d be hard-pressed to find someone with a device that can run WhatsApp who says they don’t have or use it on their phone.
The outage exposed the need for options
These changes meant that certain data, mainly from businesses using it for customer service purposes, would be shared with Facebook in an effort to monitise the platform.
WhatsApp can not read the contents of your chats because of end-to-end encryption. However, sharing information from WhatsApp whatever it may be goes against the privacy mantra the company said it stands for.
This policy then forced the privacy-conscious folk who can afford general data bundles and home Wi-Fi to migrate to Telegram and Signal. Both messaging services have seen a massive boom in users since WhatsApp announced that it would be sharing information with Facebook.
If you didn’t have the knowledge, couldn’t afford the data to download a VPN, and run an alternative like Telegram you were in the dark. GSM calls and SMS would have been an option but would have been used sparingly.
This outage was a microcosm of that event, but as with the internet shutdown, those who could afford an alternative weren’t really affected. An example of this were my own actions when WhatsApp went down. My knee-jerk reaction was to got Telegram and communicate there while WhatsApp got its house in order.
Not everyone has that option and this is why we need a unified Telegram, Signal and WhatsApp bundle.
Econet, NetOne and Telecel are either lazy or stubborn
However, the WhatsApp outage caused a communication gap for a good number of Zimbabweans. Econet Telecel and NetOne no longer have any excuses for not testing out a unified messaging app bundle.
If they stay this course the MNOs are proving that they are out of touch with their consumers as well as being incapable of projecting the potential problems of having the country locked to one service.