The outage of Facebook and its Instagram platform on Monday meant fewer memes shared, of course, and may have cost Facebook millions in revenue. But let’s talk about another Facebook property that went offline, WhatsApp. For many parts of the world, WhatsApp is not just another way to send SMS, it is the primary way to communicate and even do business. The blackout, for much of the planet, was no joke.
If you need kitchen supplies in Harare, Zimbabwe, Norlene Mkwemba is your wife. She’s a public health student, but she has a side business that sells things like cups and bottles of juice. She takes orders the day before school, “and after school I can deliver to people’s offices,” she said.
Mkwemba’s customers are reaching out to her on WhatsApp and Facebook – and both were down at the time of the rush order. “So people couldn’t place their orders, so I lost about five customers, which is a lot for me,” she said.
WhatsApp is a lifeline for businesses, unlike websites and even phone lines.
“Well, the internet is pretty slow in my town, isn’t it? So you find that the websites are not exactly available and the data rates are very high, so people prefer to buy WhatsApp and Facebook plans because they are cheaper and affordable, ”Mkwemba said.
WhatsApp is a major communication and business platform in many emerging markets.
Abraham Leno is in Kigali, Rwanda. He is the head of the Eastern Congo Initiative, a nonprofit advocacy group, and he said WhatsApp has made communication more accessible.
“Even the simplest, cheapest phone can let you connect with anyone anywhere in the world, and using data for WhatsApp is much cheaper than many other platforms.” , Leno said.
Ninety percent of 16-64 year olds in Argentina, Colombia and Brazil have the platform, according to Benjamin Gédan at the Wilson Center, a policy research organization. The blackout affected everything from group chats to business and even the news.
“I mean, it was apocalyptic in Latin America,” he said. “All the headlines were screaming about this WhatsApp outage, and it seemed like it was stopping the economy.”
Many emerging markets don’t have competitive telecom sectors, Gedan said, so you get expensive texting, for example – whereas with WhatsApp, texting is free.
“It is quite common in the development of telecommunications technologies for smartphones to spread faster than very expensive broadband infrastructure,” Gedan said.
When you have a power outage, it affects neighborhoods – maybe regions – but now we are in a world where a WhatsApp outage affects entire regions of the planet.