Sometime on Saturday the 20th of July I recall trying to make an urgent phone call around 1110hrs. I tried several times and ended up thinking the person I was trying to call was just unavailable. Moments later a friend of mine asked me for cash citing that they wanted to get something to eat but Ecocash wasn’t working. At the time I really didn’t think anything about those two incidents and it was only a bit later that I heard that Econet services had gone down. Considering that I had recently written an article on a possible move by local mobile networks to shutdown base stations during load shedding I probably thought that’s what had happened.

The Service Blackout

So it wasn’t initially clear as to what had caused the failure of the Econet services. Internet services, USSD services, Steward bank services, Ecocash services and Yomix services were all down. Unfortunately, lots of businesses and individuals alike took a huge hit and the incident got people talking all over social media. This obviously was a huge incident considering that the downtime lasted several hours in most places. As to what had caused the services blackout it later emerged that there had been a power outage at Econet’s Network Operations Centre in Harare which happens to be its core site. This is why Econet could not warn its subscribers ahead of time because this was an unexpected incident.

People’s Reactions

As can be expected people were outraged by the incident because it disrupted so many things. I saw accounts of many people who went through torrid experiences because of the services blackout. I know of incidents where people missed important calls due to the blackout. Most businesses took a dive as people couldn’t pay using the widely used Ecocash. Some were infuriated by bundles they had purchased prior that ended up going down the drain. Most people were even questioning whether or not they would get reimbursements. By the time the day ended on Saturday most people were still experiencing challenges accessing Econet services.

For some people, services had all been fully restored but for some, it was still problematic even spilling over into Sunday. The outrage by people is understandable especially considering that Econet has a huge backlog in addressing consumer issues. The services outages led to disruptions in normal functionality even when services had been restored. I noticed a lot of complaints on the Econet Facebook citing over-deductions when purchasing bundles using Ecocash. This seems to be a scenario that still rages on because I have a similar issue that remains unresolved since April.

What’s Econet’s Response To All This?

Econet has indicated that drastic measures might now be necessary since power outages are affecting them big time. They have highlighted that their service delivery has been seriously compromised due to incessant power cuts. So their indication of possible drastic measures is premised on two things namely, incessant power cuts and discordant pricing due to rising operating costs and relatively static tariffs.

Econet has said that their network can no longer sustain the brunt of continuous load shedding. The network has a certain tolerance level for power outages which has since been exceeded and is thus leading to poor service. They have tried to avert the power outages by the use of backup generators but the situation has gotten to a point where it’s no longer sustainable. Picture a scenario where you have to keep a generator up and running for as high as 18 hours a day. That translates into huge costs also exacerbated by fuel shortages. Another key cost will stem from more regular generator maintenances due to continuous use. To cap that off, you’ve got regulated tariffs that are far removed from the actual operating costs. When you muse on that you surely realize that it’s a catch-22 situation that’s extremely hard to bear.

The inevitable outcome of the electricity and fuel shortages is the inability to keep all base stations up and running all the time. This results in poor network quality and also means that glitches such as those prevalent in Ecocash transactions will continue to rule. All in all, Econet and other mobile network service providers are engaging relevant authorities in order to work out a sustainable solution to this crisis. If that can’t be done in the earliest possible time then they won’t have any option but to implement drastic measures. Part of the drastic measures might involve the shutting down of base stations during load shedding or maybe tariff hikes.

The most annoying thing for people is that they are angry at many things at once. As much as I know that Econet has its flaws the present scenario is not wholly their fault. Every business operating in Zimbabwe is being affected by the prevailing power outages. What’s most important right now is for the government to engage industry players and work on sustainable solutions otherwise the obtaining trajectory is leading the nation to an undesirable place.