When Liquid Home (formerly ZOL) announced WibroniX (formerly) to the world back in May of 2018 it was met with excitement and great cheer, especially by internet users who live in Harare’s Western suburbs who desperately needed something to replace their Wimax connections that were feeling their age. Liquid Home introduced WibroniX data lines (LTE SIM cards) in September of the following year. Back then you could take the line wherever there is Liquid Home coverage and expect to get an internet connection. That changed in 2020, now you can only use your WibroniX line at the registered and nowhere else.

To be clear if you visit a Liquid Home shop right now and sign up for WibroniX coverage you will be asked for your address. WibroniX is an LTE service much which uses a “line” that is not very different from the one you put in your phone in order to use Econet, NetOne or Telecel services. In fact, you can use WibroniX on certain phones but more on that later. Based on that address the Liquid Home engineers will “lock” your given Liquid Home LTE SIM card to a given geo-location (address in the common tongue). As long as you are using your line from that given address and there are no technical issues affecting the base station(s) you are connected to or are trying to connect to, you should have a flawless internet connection.

Your LTE SIM card will not work if you move to another location unless you notify Liquid Home of your move and they configure your account to make sure that your SIM LTE works at the new location. When you do this your LTE line will now be locked to that specific home address. You can no longer use it from the old given location as you are considered to have moved and you are now living in a new location.

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While Liquid Home uses LTE technology which is generally similar to what mobile network operators like Econet, Telecel and NetOne call 4G, Liquid Home offers fixed LTE. While in theory you could carry your mobile router around and stay connected to their network that is not how Liquid Home envisaged WibroniX being used. It is intended to be an alternative to their FibroniX which is cheaper and quicker to install without the need for them to dig trenches everywhere. As already implied this is a choice that Liquid Home chose to make along the way. Why? Let me explain.

Here is why Liquid Home geo-locks WibroniX LTE SIM cards

As already explained WibroniX was launched back in 2018 and that was before the pandemic. I traded in my Wimax connection back in 2019 and hopped on the WibroniX train. There were normal hiccups along the way but you could expect to at the very least get 1/3 of the advertised speeds even on the worst day. That changed in March of 2020 when COVID-19 struck and lockdowns were introduced. For two months WibroniX, unlike FibroniX was practically unusable as speeds plummeted to as low as 200 kbps which is Edge territory-the speeds you get when there is an E on your phone.

The cause for this grief was simple:

  • Liquid Home SIM cards could still be used wherever there was a Liquid Home network. Those people who normally roamed around were now stuck at home and were all now trying to use their internet connections from home.
  • Base stations can only handle so many people, when Liquid Home had conceived the network they had not anticipated the novelty that was the pandemic. Now certain base stations had fewer people while others were overwhelmed because they were a deluge of users in locations meant to handle fewer people than were meant to handle.

NB, It was not just Liquid Home that was affected. Econet, Telecel, NetOne, MTN, M-Cell, Cell-C and Vodacom were all affected. This is because there was an increased demand for data and the internet as more people worked from home, people tried to stay in touch with friends and online lessons became a thing. The bulk of people in Zimbabwe, as in other African countries, connect to the internet using LTE and similar mobile technologies so most networks were brought to their knees.

Liquid Home’s solution

In response to this Liquid came up with two solutions:

  • They were offered free spectrum by the government. Think of spectrum as more channels they could use to connect people to the internet. This was a cheap solution but it required a bit of technical know-how as it involved messing with your router’s settings.
  • Geo-locking-this is where customers would be confined to their particular geo-location. From an engineering position, this makes things easier as it eliminates the guesswork. You know how many people live in a given area and can expand your base station capacity accordingly.

The second solution is the real reason why Liquid Home continues to sell geo-locked LTE SIM cards to this day. It is something Liquid recently confirmed to me when I got in touch with the issue.

As part of our  commitment to continuously improve the quality of service, please note that WiBroniX Services (LTE) are fixed and will only be accessed
from the Physical Address provided by you to Liquid Home Zimbabwe on registration. Any subsequent changes to the Physical Address need to be registered with Liquid Home Zimbabwe and must be within the Liquid Home Zimbabwe Coverage Areas. Take note that some addresses may lie outside the Liquid Home Zimbabwe Coverage Area and as such we will not be able to provide service to these locations.

What Liquid had to say about the issue

Liquid Home has a point here. Deliberately putting users in cells greatly simplifies planning and at least in theory. You know how many users live in the area and can easily expand when demand goes up. This ought to ensure that the quality of internet connections in there is consistent and not degraded during peak periods and when there is a surge in demand. Personally, I have seen proof of that improvement in quality. When these new measures were introduced back in 2020 I was able to watch Netflix again for the first time in months. LTE speeds for me have been consistently above 1 MBs (Bytes per second and to bits) as opposed to the 200 kbps.

It’s not a foolproof plan

Liquid’s choice is very valid but it is by no means foolproof even though it probably is the choice that will result in the most average number of users getting a good internet connection. Geo-locking also makes sure that Liquid Home gets fewer complaints that users are getting poor connections when users connect from low signal locations that are not officially covered but it also means that when an address is outside the official coverage zone but gets a perfect signal you will be denied service.

I should know this I once used the Powertel CDMA service outside its official coverage zone for about two years before ZOL introduced WiMax in my area. That experience taught me that coverage maps are not the gospel ISPs think there are. As I ventured from area to area I discovered that engineers are overly cautious when producing their maps and sometimes ignore local terrain which might favour wider coverage for example a base station on a mountain tends to cover a much larger area than one in a flat low-lying location. Thankfully that Powertel dongle didn’t have geo-location so I could use the service even in the midst of the Ruwa River.

Another challenge of geo-locking is that when the prescribed base stations might experience technical issues while a perfectly capable base station that covers the same area is perfectly unscathed. The user is left with either a degraded experience or no connection at all despite the fact that they could have a perfectly good or acceptable connection if they were not bound just to the affected base stations. In other words geo-locking increases the chances of a user going offline if something happens to their primary base station.

There is no perfect choice

There is no perfect choice here and Liquid Home like all ISPs has to make the tough choice that they feel will result in the most number of people being satisfied. They felt geo-locking was that solution even though it is not perfect. This choice is among the many that internet service providers has to make even though they know it will lead to some customers getting enraged. Others include:

  • Shapping torrents to prevent networks from being overwhelmed
  • Shapping the connections of heavy users
  • Choosing the contention ratio
  • Deciding on what bundles to offer. Why on earth does Econet not offer Telegram bundles but has Pinterest bundles? Who are these Zimbabweans using Pinterest? What are they doing on there?
  • Keeping parts of their Fair Usage Policy secret