How Zimbabwe's Econet Frustrated Six Million Customers

Approximately 40% of the world’s population is connected to the internet. According to Internet Live Stats, that number has gone past 3 billion in 2014. In a much lighter translation — we now share (and consume) more information online than we ever did before.

That leaves roughly 4.4 billion people offline, and a majority of those are to be found in third world countries.

Internet Users by Region

There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, internet connectivity is expensive. Having experienced this in person, sometimes you even wonder why you should try. But with that being said, there are broadband providers that make it a point to charge an arm and a leg for internet connectivity. One such carrier in Zimbabwe shattered millions of people’s chances of realizing the internet’s real worth.

Changes

Zimbabwe is a small country in the southern region of Africa. It is home to 13 million people. This small country was rated second in Africa’s highest literacy rate, second only to Seychelles.

The Internet was introduced to Zimbabwe in 1994, by an Internet Service Provider that was then called Data Control & Systems, before another local company created a backbone which sold bandwidth to ISPs.

The country’s biggest carrier, Econet Wireless, was the first to offer broadband to its customers in 2010.

The carrier pioneered a lot of services outside broadband, that include a mobile money payment service (a strategy which was later adopted by other competitors), mobile insurance service, a recent an online shopping service (sans delivery, you can go pick it up yourself) and a highly successful social media app bundling service.

The latter allowed three apps (Facebook, WhatsApp and a data-conscious browser, Opera Mini) to connect to the internet, unlimited but within a designated time period.

The above apps were unequivocally the most used social apps in the country and the carrier cashed in, the reason the services blew up — until recently.

Fast Lanes

“We are really, really f--king this up. But we can fix it, I swear. We just have to start telling each other the truth. Not the doublespeak bullshit of regulators and lobbyists, but the actual truth. Once we have the truth, we have the power — the power to demand better not only from our government, but from the companies that serve us well,” wrote The Verge’s Nilay Patel writing on the US’s net neutrality bill that saw a positive outcome earlier this year.

The internet is fucked (but we can fix it)

Part of what he writes resonates well with the outcome that soon fell in the hands of Econet Wireless’s 6 million customers.

The carrier split its social bundle offerings into two, one quizzically called “Light” and the other called “Extra”. The former remains with the same, relatively affordable price but with a data cap that starts from 15 MB for the daily $0.40 bundle all the way to a 60MB cap for the 3$/mo offering — this doesn’t involve text because that’s just as good as charging more for communicating in Morse code.

Once these caps run out (which is like a few minutes/hours for the Light version), your connection becomes painfully slow, to the point where it becomes barely usable. This was enough to garner social media backlash from its subscribers.

Looking To The Skies

There is something about going online that you take for granted when you don’t have to fight the anxiety of running your (hilariously small) data cap. That experience drives people crazy.

Using WhatsApp unlimited with these “bundles” was every reason the service was highly successful in the country, the same with internet usage over the low data consuming browser, Opera Mini and Facebook. People loved it, but clearly the carrier didn’t — not when it was digging into their call and SMS revenues.

These stories are the ones that make me feel optimistic about projects being carried out by companies like Google's Project Loon. When these flying machines finally beam a connection down to remote regions, problems raised by these schemes will likely be drastically alleviated if not obviated.

Hopefully, that will be enough to convince enough people to access information on the web without paying way too much upfront.

Cover Image: Rolling Rebellion Advocates for Net Neutrality |
Backbone Campaign

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