Nigerian telecom operators are groaning about how WhatsApp, BBM, Skype and similar services are eating their lunch. Messages and calls made on WhatsApp, BBM, Skype and similar services bypass the mobile operator because they run over the internet and so are much cheaper for the subscriber. In effect, they eat into an operator’s SMS and voice revenue.
So, while the title of this post mentions only WhatsApp, bear in mind that I am talking about a range of services that is not limited to WhatsApp alone.
An official of a Nigerian mobile telco recently highlighted this as a challenge. According to him, these services are provided to subscribers using network infrastructure of operators but without commensurate compensation to the operators.
I disagree. To the extent that subscribers are paying operators for the data used to run those services, the operators are actually getting commensurate compensation. Simple and short. But I can give a longer version. Here goes.
The Game Has Changed
Operators need to wake up to the fact that the needs and behaviour patterns of subscribers have changed. This is not 2001 when the primary needs of subscribers was voice. As far back as 2005, I talked about how data was the way forward and argued for the widespread deployment of mobile internet as a means of bridging the digital divide in Nigeria.
This is the age of data. The strategies of network operators need to change from voice-centric to data-centric. Right now, what we see in Nigeria are a few half-hearted attempts by operators to provide internet connectivity. Quality of service is mostly shitty. That has to change. It has to change because the subscribers will not change for them. Subscribers will increasingly prefer WhatsApp messages over SMS, and eventually WhatsApp calls over network calls. Same for Skype and BBM and others. That’s just the way it is.
Get With The Programme Or Wither
Network operators have to adapt. If they do not, they will lose completely. For example, if a network blocks these services, what’s to stop a subscriber from taking up a data plan with Swift, Smile or some other ISP and still make those WhatsApp calls on that? In which case, the mobile network loses both voice/SMS and Internet revenue. There.
Also, once we have widespread public WIFI hotspots around the country, what’s to stop subscribers from piggybacking on those if mobile networks do not play ball? In other words, mobile telcos do not have the monopoly on data as they have on voice and SMS. Even worse, they do not dictate the pace for data either.
To be sure, this must be a nightmare scenario for mobile operators, but this is where they need to behave like startups and start experimenting with lots of new stuff. Then they can stay ahead of the curve.
But one thing is clear: calls and messaging on WhatsApp, BBM, Skype and others are here to stay. Everyone knows that by now. Hopefully.