On Monday Facebook-owned services including WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook itself were down for about five hours. Scores of other apps that use Facebook services indirectly were also affected. During this time lots of Zimbabweans who rely on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram for personal and business were left stranded. The tragedy was made all the worse given how popular local bundles are.

You see according to POTRAZ for the majority of Zimbabweans WhatsApp is the internet. They buy WhatsApp bundles from one of the three networks i.e. Telecel, Econet and NetOne. These bundles only allow them to access WhatsApp and nothing else. There are also Facebook and Instagram bundles that are less popular but work in much the same way in that they only allow you to access the said service.

With these bundles, people were essentially shut off the internet when WhatsApp and the other Facebook services went down. They couldn’t reach their loved ones, market their products or communicate with their business partners during the blackout. The internet wasn’t down those with means were able to use alternative services such as Telegram or even emails to communicate but those who use bundles couldn’t do this as their bundles come with a straight jacket.

The blackout laid bare the harm that bundles bring when they favour monopolies like Facebook. Even though there are good alternatives such as Telegram people couldn’t use them because the three mobile network operators Econet, Telecel and NetOne have taken it upon themselves to create only certain bundles

Some would rightly point out that WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram bundles were created as a response to popular demand but that’s not strictly very true. For example, Telegram has comparable if not more users compared to Twitter and yet we have Twitter bundles from Econet but not Telegram bundles. Econet’s Sasai is a fringe service that they continue to promote and we actually have Sasai bundles but not Gmail bundles. Lots of people use Gmail and yet we don’t have Gmail bundles.

As can be clearly seen in the case of say Sasai bundles when mobile network operators are allowed to create bundles they stop being neutral conduits for data and instead become arbiters and in the case of Econet it seems they also compete against some social media services thus making it a conflict of interest.

In any case, we should be fighting for lower data costs that allow us to sample the internet in its entirety instead of being content with bundles that allow us fettered access to diced up pieces of it. Yesterday’s breakout is an indication of what can happen if we rely too much on the services provided by one company.