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.
There has been a lot of attention in the local media on the push by the government to have Kenya migrate its TV signals from analog to digital. The governments push has left many wondering what its stake in all this is.
In 2006 Kenya participated in the The Regional Radiocommunications Conference-2006 (RRC-06) which was hosted by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). In this conference, it was agreed that all nations need to migrate to digital TV by 2015. Kenya set an ambitious cut-over date of 2012 as the date by which all TV broadcast in Kenya will have been migrated to digital. The Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) has formed a digital migration secretariat to co-ordinate this migration. This secretariat is the one stop center for all matters related to this migration.
Many a bystander will ask, other than the government ratifying the RCC-06 agreement, what is the government’s stake in asking its citizens and broadcasters to change the way in which they receive their TV signals. With majority of TV services being run by private entities, shouldn’t the decision to change from analog to digital be done by these entities in the same manner in which a mobile operator decides to roll out 3G or 4G based on a business case and not by regulatory conditionality?
CCK recently expressed fears that over 40% of TV sets in Kenya are black and white and this could signal a stumbling block because owners of black and white TV sets tend to be those who are economically disadvantaged and cannot easily afford a digital set-top box. With the deadline to switch over fast approaching, TV stations stand to lose 40% of their viewers if these viewers do not manage to upgrade to digital TV. This is a big threat to their market base and I would have expected a flurry of activity from TV operators seeking the indulgence of the government to subsidize the set-top boxes to consumers or better offer them for free as was the case in USA when they did their migration in 2009. If the American TV viewer who is by all means better off than the Kenyan counterpart got help from the government, one wonders what will happen to the Kenya viewer if he is not helped by the government to acquire a set-top box. The high cost of set-top boxes and poor planning of the migration project has made the government postpone the migration deadline to 2013 from the earlier mid 2012 deadline.
However, far from that, the main reason why the government (and many other governments) stand to benefit from this migration is revenues. The government is the biggest beneficiary in the digital TV migration because it will draw revenues from:
- The license fees from signal distribution companies: In Digital TV, all TV stations are to give their signal to a central signal distributor who will then transmit this signal on their behalf. The signal distributor pays a license fee to the government which is an additional revenue source. There is also the revenue that was to be gained from tax on the set-top boxes, there has been a push to zero-rate the boxes so as to make then more affordable to users. Even with zero rating, the importation process is poised to benefit the economy in one way or the other.
- With the migration of analog TV signals away from the 800Mhz band, the band will be available for auction to telecommunication operators for use in operating 4G-LTE networks.
4G-LTE networks and your TV
The 4G-LTE network can use either the 800Mhz or the 1900Mhz band for transmission, the 1800Mhz band is not preferred because it is less efficient to use than the 800Mhz band. The fact that 1800Mhz is higher frequency means that physical barriers such as building walls might impede its transmission and make it less effective for high-speed data transmission. Transmitters and detectors of higher frequency communication (4G phones in this case) tend to cost more compared to lower frequency transmitters and detectors.
The most desirable characteristic of lower frequencies is that they can travel longer distances without losing their ability to carry information. This means that a 4G-LTE network at 800Mhz will require fewer base stations than the same network at 1800Mhz. This therefore makes building and operating a 800Mhz network cheaper than one on 1900Mhz range.
The use of the 800Mhz band in analog TV transmission therefore means that mobile operators are only left with 1800Mhz to roll out 4G-LTE. Much of the pressure to migrate TV from analog to digital is therefore informed by the fact that the government can auction the 800Mhz band to mobile operators for millions of shillings and empower them to roll our cheaper-to-run 4G-LTE networks. The by-product of this migration to TV viewers is that they get a clearer TV signal with many value additions on the digital signal such as the ability to get descriptions of programs on TV, auto schedule TV programs of their interest, and also pay-per-view services.