How One Carrier Took Away 6 million People’s Chances of Connecting to the Internet

Half the time when talking about one of the world’s greatest achievements connecting people thousands of miles away is most likely one of them. This talk often spurs conversation about how people get to easily share information, about how it empowers and develops our knowledge as human beings.

I strongly believe that is true.

Today, close to 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. But that leaves ~4.4 billion people offline, and a majority of those found in third world countries.

There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, data is expensive — a whole lot 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 data, with pay-to-play schemes and additional fees. And this one carrier just shattered millions of people’s chances of realizing the internet’s real worth.

Changes

Zimbabwe, a small country in the southern region of Africa, is home to 13 million people. This small country was rated second in Africa’s highest literacy rate, second only to Seychelles. The internet came to Zimbabwe in 1994, by an Internet provider that was then 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 services to its subscribers 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 with a designated time. These 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.

Part of his piece resonates well with the outcome that soon fell in the hands of Econet Wireless’s 6 million subscribers. 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.

The “Extra” bundles are the new, high-end bundles that cost double the price people used to pay for the regular ones. But, again, with data caps that range from 100MB to 500MB for media (the latter costs $6/mo which may not seem like much but when you consider the unused data at the end of the month, that’s when it starts to make sense).

Once these caps run out (which is like a few minutes/hours for the lite 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. That experience drives people crazy. Using WhatsApp unlimited with these “bundles” was every reason the IM 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 and Facebook — Project Loon and Facebook’s high flying UAVs. 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.

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