How often have you tried to make a call during Stage 6 #loadshitting and you just can’t connect?
It’s been happening more this year as the cellular networks struggle to keep up with the rolling blackouts. It takes longer to recharge base station batteries – if they haven’t been stolen – when the stages increase the number of hours without electricity. That weaker power source degrades the quality of cellular signals.
But calls through WhatsApp do connect and are increasingly most South Africans’ first choice for making calls.
WhatsApp is killing the voice call star
This voice substitution, as it’s called by the industry, has been happening for a decade – but has become more pronounced in the last few years. First people began texting more – thanks to Mxit and then BlackBerry’s BBM. Desktop computer users had been using Skype, MSN Messenger and ICQ for even longer.
By the time WhatsApp arrived around 2012 – it was famously acquired by Facebook (now Meta) for a whopping $19 billion – South Africans were text-savvy. But for the last few years, people have been increasingly using WhatsApp’s voice notes and making (mostly) free calls. You still pay for the data used, but it is negligible compared to the per-minute cost of a voice call.
Voice notes are an unexpected triumph. People who sit in meetings, or are on calls, for much of their workday hate them, for obvious reasons – you can’t just read them and reply. But for millions of people for whom typing is more difficult, voice notes are the easiest way to send a quick short message. It’s like an asynchronous phone call – with long delays between responses. I think it’s one of the smartest adaptations of available technology I’ve seen.
Clearly so do many millions more, who are just making fewer calls the old-fashioned way. Much like that old adage that “TV killed the radio star,” WhatsApp is killing voice revenue for mobile operators.
“Voice is transitioning to voice over data. More importantly, voice is being cannibalised by Messenger and WhatsApp,” Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub told TechCentral recently. “That is putting added pressure on telcos globally.”
But it doesn’t help if there is no power to make calls, as MTN reported in its results from the first six months of 2023, which saw a 16% year-on-year first-quarter drop.
“The extent of power outages in the country remained elevated, with 90 days of load shedding during the quarter, compared to 14 in the first quarter of 2022,” it said. “This heavily disrupted network availability, which affected MTN South Africa’s growth trajectory, especially in its voice segment.”
This trajectory is only going to get worse – with no end in sight to #loadshitting and calling via WhatsApp gaining more traction as its quality increases.
I remember those early days when WhatsApp was so unrealisable at delivering messages, that the telco executives sniggered at it. They thought it was a threat to the vastly overpriced SMSes that had been such a cash cow for too many years. Like all great disruptions, nobody saw it coming for ye olde voice revenue.
This article first appeared in the Financial Mail