What Whatsapp voice means for MNO’s

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Facebook inc recently introduced the ability to make voice calls directly on its Whatsapp mobile application. This is currently available on Android OS and soon to be made available on iOS.

What this means is that mobile users with the updated app can now call each other by using available data channels such as Wi-Fi or mobile data. Going by a recent tweet by a user who tried to use the service on Safaricom, the user claims that they made a 7 minute call and consumed just about 5MB’s of data. If these claims are true, then it means that by using Whatsapp, a user can call anyone in the world for less than a shilling a minute. This is lower than most mobile tariffs.

Is this a game changer?

Depends on who you ask. First lets look at what happens when you make a Whatsapp call. When a user initiates a call to another user over Whatsapp, both of them incur data charges, in the case of the twitter user I referred to above who consumed 5MBs, the recipient of the call also consumed a similar amount of data for receiving the call. If it so happens that both callers were on Safaricom, then just about 10MB’s were consumed for the 7 minutes call. The cost of 10MBs is close to what it would cost to make a GSM phone call for the same duration of time anyway. Effectively, to now receive a Whatsapp call, it is going to cost the recipient of the call. This is unlike on GSM where receiving calls is free.  When the phone rings with an incoming Whatsapp call, the first thought that crosses a call recipients mind is if he/she has enough data ‘bundles’ on their phone to pick the call. The danger is if there is none or the data bundle runs out mid-call, the recipient will be billed at out of bundle rate of 4 shillings an MB. Assuming our reference user above called someone whose data had run out, Safaricom will have made 5 Shillings from the 5MBs and 28 shillings from the recipient. A total of 33 shillings for a 7 minute call translating to 4.7 shillings a minute which is more than the GSM tariffs.

This effectively changes the cost model of making calls. the cost is now borne by both parties, something that might not go down well with most users. I have not made a Whatsapp call as my phone is a feature phone but I believe if a “disable calls” option does not exist, Whatsapp will soon introduce it due to pressure from users who do not wish to be called via Whatsapp due to the potential costs of receiving a call. That will kill all the buzz.

Will operators block Whatsapp calls?

It is technically possible to block Whatsapp texts and file transfers using layer 7+ deep packet inspection systems such as those from Allot’s NetEnforcer and Blue coat’s Packeteer. I believe an update to detect Whatsapp voice is in the offing soon and this will give operators the ability to block Whatsapp voice. The question however is what will drive them to block it?  MNO’s will have no problem allowing Whatsapp traffic as it wsill mot likely be a boon for them if most of the calls are on-net (They get to bill both parties in the call). If however most calls are off-net (Like those to recipients on other mobile networks locally or international), then MNO’s might block or give lower QoS priority to make the calls of a poor quality to sustain a conversation. They might however run into problems with the regulator should subscribers raise concerns that they think the operators are unfairly discriminating Whatsapp voice traffic. Net neutrality rules (not sure they are enforceable in Kenya yet) require that all data bits on the internet be treated equally, it should not matter if that bit is carrying Whatsapp voice, bible quotes or adult content. This will mean that operators can be punished for throttling Whatsapp voice traffic in favour of their own voice traffic. This therefore presents a catch 22 situation for them. What they need to do is come up with innovative ways to benefit from this development like offering slightly cheaper data tariffs for on-net Whatsapp voice to spur increased Whatsapp usage within the network (and therefore bill both participants).

Worth noting is that it costs the operator more to transfer a bit on 3G than it does on 4G. Operators who roll out 4G stand to benefit from Whatsapp voice as they can offer data at a lower cost to them and this benefit can be passed down to subscribers. The fact that voLTE is all the rage now, Whatsapp voice can supplement voLTE and can even be a cheaper way for operators to offer their voice services on their LTE networks without further investment in voLTE specific network equipment.

In short any operator who wants to benefit from Whatsapp voice has to go LTE.


  1. Hi Tom…great articles as usual. Since most users have smart phones these days, if one is concerned about their data they could try connect to wifi hotspots and make their calls. This way the call really is FREE . Of course one is not always near a free wifi unless you are at home.

  2. Hi Tom, This is a real game changer not just in the Kenyan case but also worldwide. But let’s look at the Kenyan case closely. Let’s go with the cost you have indicated – 5MB for 7 minutes although my usage is actually lower(<500KB per minute). Even medium data users will have bought some considerable resources but let's use Safaricom's daily 50MB + 50MB which costs 30 shillings per day. If I use half the data for Whatsapp calling I get 35 minutes of air time to any number on my phone, wherever the person is worldwide. But for now let's just assume I am calling my friend who lives across the road. Talking for 7 minutes costs 5MB which translates to KES 3 for me and KES 3 for him so KES 6 in total. Using the carrier's voice network would have cost me KES 28. So the MNO has already lost KES 22 in this deal. That is on the lower end. I buy my data for far much cheaper. If I were a MNO I would be scared. IF net neutrality is maintained even if the current cost of data is maintained telco revenues are sure to be affected locally. Whatsapp is becoming the only app you'll need to communicate with people who matter in areas with broadband. We might still need to use the carrier to call people in rural areas or those who do not own smartphones. I am 100% sure that telcos hate Whatsapp with a passion. Ate into their SMS revenues, never mind this was GSM's EWL in the first place; and now eating into the voice revenue. What's next, payments??? Whichever way you look at it the telcos will lose money with this development – unless they devise a scheme of selling us more data for cheaper. The future has been in data for sometime now; my heart bleeds that we still have to buy "bundles". We need to free the Internet. On the global scene Microsoft should be worried about Skype. I smell Whatsapp video calls around the corner. Telcos stand to lose big in the international calling market. I am still wondering how anyone is going to sell LTE bundles. How is Safaricom pricing its LTE? Since they are still stuck with "bundles" I am looking to suggest a winner – 1TB @ 5K pm. Nice articles. Keep writing!

  3. I’ve tested the whatsapp calling feature. It consumes around 200-300kb for a one minute call. It’s cheaper. However, I don’t think it’ll be a game changer(for now) especially considering that most guys are on 2g connections(best effort network issues). The quality of service may not be that great. I got that from safaricom and they also don’t plan on blocking the feature. You also have to look at issues of call continuity. The is no call continuity if your device happens to switch from one network(2g) to the another(3g).

  4. Good article gamulei.

    There is also another angle we need to consider.

    The huge adoption of fixed data with fiber wimax and smartphone and tablet enabled mobile hotspots which are MNO agnostic opens a huge disadvantage to MNOs.

    My wife uses our zuku wifi home connection to call me via whatsapp and i receive with my default wifi office connection. This closes out safarricomm from the party.

    When i go to java i have a free wifi and when i travel to mombasa via a bus with free wifi safcom MNO continues to miss my bytes.

    Users will soon realise that 3g or 4g driven whatsapp or other service cost them to call and receive and resort to fixed data. If the cost savings are significant (java. Office. Or my home connection pays for my voice calls) subscribers can reco figure their calling patterns and call only when they have a free wifi connection.

    The need for wifi will drive most businesses to have free wifi as a customer loyalty service (already happening with most cafes hospitals barclays bank of late). And soon could be having a quasi contiguous wifi network all over.

    Some mnos eg saf have been agressive in rolling out fiber network. However this could be their own undoing from an economic perspective.

    Voice accounts for over 75% of mobile revenues. Rolling out fiber that adds 20% to data revenues but wiping off 30% of your voice revenue to wifi driven whatsapp or skype is a zerosum game.

    Stiffling or throttling customer experience using data layer protocols is easy if done via mobile data but with wifi being a device specific and mno agnostic service it would not be easy to block these ott services.

    MNOs have no choice than embrace whatsapp and become more creative in offering value add and content services that whatsapp cannot.

    After all the window of opportunity is fast closing and google fiber is next door in uganda, google loons and the era or skystream and sky network with low orbiting satellites is not so distant.

    1. Good views Steve. I agree. Fixed and 4G will make WhatsApp calling cheaper. Since the time I wrote this I’ve used the feature severally and I am impressed by the call quality

      1. Sure….

        Facebook company motto is to get things done then perfect as they go…..

        There is a revolution in telecom in the offing

        Steve musango

        Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

        From:”Tom Makau” Date:Tue, 20 Oct, 2015 at 13:06 Subject:[New comment] What Whatsapp voice means for MNO’s

        Tom Makau commented: “Good views Steve. I agree. Fixed and 4G will make WhatsApp calling cheaper. Since the time I wrote this I’ve used the feature severally and I am impressed by the call quality “

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