Lately it is has been a serious issue when it comes to all mobile network operators (MNOs) in Zimbabwe. It is something we have not quite seen happening and it is very disturbing. Given the pandemic online activity has obviously spiked. Not just casual online activity alone but serious online activity. You see, a significant portion of the workforce now works online. All sorts of meetings e.g. business meetings are now conducted online. It becomes hugely inconvenient when your online sessions are interrupted by poor network performance. In this article, I look at this prevailing issue.

A Dual Problem – Both Econet And NetOne

The issue is hard-hitting in that it is coming in two ways. One, the mobile networks are being erratic; one moment they are up and running the next moment they are down. Econet is somewhat better in terms of general mobile network availability though. NetOne is much worse because the network can literally go down for days on end. Of course, these issues tend to be location-specific so some people might not be facing such challenges. However, judging by comments on their social media platforms the problem is widespread.

Two, data networks are also being erratic. Again Econet is not as bad as NetOne in this regard. For the most part, the NetOne data network has been extremely mercurial lately. I personally once went for almost a week with no NetOne data network in my area. At times the data network can be up but with a huge discrepancy between upload and download speeds.

All this is worsened by the fact that there are areas already that have always had network issues for years. I know of areas where you have to look for particular spots to pick up the network. This is largely because base stations do not cover some areas.

What The MNOs Are Saying

On the 18th of February 2021, Econet issued the following message: “Dear Valued Customers. We apologize for the intermittent challenges that could be impacting some of our customers on the network. Our technical teams are working to resolve the issue and we will inform you once it has been resolved. We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience this has caused. Econet Wireless.” The following day, on the 19th, they communicated again informing customers that the network had been successfully resolved. Econet is much better because these challenges are not as frequent and widespread. Even that message shows that it was some of the customers that were affected.

As for NetOne, the scenario is much different from Econet. About 6 days ago, they issued the following message: “Dear valued customer, NetOne would like to apologize for the intermittent data service being experienced. Our engineers are working flat out to restore normal service. Inconveniences caused are sincerely regretted.” For NetOne it was literally the whole country; in fact, the data network is still hazy. Imagine having to periodically turn off and turn on data just to refresh the network. At times an image as small as say, 24 kilobytes can take ages to send or download. That is how the experience has been lately.

Bottom Line Regarding The Cause

It is not clear from both MNOs’ communique what exactly has been or is causing these issues. It could be better maybe if customers knew what exactly is going on. At the end of the day, customers are left to speculate as to what the causes are.

Possible Causes

There are a couple of possible causes that are leading to these inconvenient issues. It rained and has been raining heavily for the past few months. There is a possibility that key infrastructure could have been damaged thus creating problems. There is also a possibility that important maintenance and repair works are behind schedule. Lockdown restrictions could have also negatively impacted human resource dynamics such that manpower can be falling short. We have heard of MNOs bemoaning cash flows issues due to currency-related issues e.g. a weak local currency and shortage of foreign currency. I also feel that MNOs are overwhelmed now especially because of increased online activity. The networks might have not been conditioned enough for the meteoric rise in internet usage. Of particular mention here would be NetOne for one major reason.

Towards the end of 2019, NetOne started a bold #CrossOverToNetOne campaign. This came at a time when Econet was facing serious issues with its network especially the EcoCash platform. Thus NetOne capitalized on that to lure people towards them as a better alternative. Increasing its subscriber base was not a bad thing but I did say something then (in 2019): “For what it is worth I think NetOne currently offers good services; its network is mostly good. I am not sure if that will remain the same as its subscriber base grows because I somehow think that is one of the reasons the Econet services, in general, have been riddled with challenges. For instance, Econet has over 11 million subscribers and probably their system is now overwhelmed.” Right now I am so confident that the concern I had turned out to be valid i.e. for NetOne.

Ultimately these issues must be rectified because they are costly. I have heard many complaints of people purchasing data bundles that end up expiring without any meaningful use. This stems from data or mobile networks being erratic mostly. Some have missed important emails and lost out on huge opportunities – I know someone who lost an important job opportunity due to this. Last night I personally failed to attend an important online skills training program on Zoom due to a poor data network. I can go on and on but these MNOs owe it to every customer to deliver top-notch service. At the very least they should communicate with customers in a way that helps them make sense of what is going on. Plus respective regulatory authorities must hold them to account always.