Under lockdown, Zimbabweans use more internet and make less calls in second quarter

Econet: forex crisis a threat to service quality (REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo/File Photo)

Zimbabweans used more data and made fewer calls during the second quarter of the year, a period that covered the COVID-19 lockdown, according to the latest quarterly report by the industry regulator.

Mobile internet and data traffic was up 56.2% in the second quarter, even as the number of internet subscriptions fell by 6.7%, POTRAZ says in its report. Fixed voice traffic dropped 27.8%, while mobile voice was down by 1.2%.

The bigger drop in fixed-line usage, compared to the marginal drop in mobile calls, shows the impact of business closures during the lockdown, which was announced at the end of March. Many formal businesses sent staff to work from home, which drove up demand for internet usage for services such as videoconferencing.

Schools in urban areas adopted e-learning, which will have also driven data usage.

The total number of active mobile subscriptions fell by 6.7% to 12,798,298 from 13,724,522 in the first quarter of the year. Active internet and data subscriptions also declined by 4% to 8,267,268 from 8,614,009.

POTRAZ says: “The decline in active internet subscriptions in the quarter under review may be attributable to the depressed demand in the economy, at both household and industry level. COVID-19 had a direct impact on the operations of both the formal and informal sector, thus negatively affecting real disposable incomes.”

Voice over?

Even before the COVID-19 lockdown, voice traffic was already under pressure as consumers moved to cheaper Over-the-Top services such as WhatsApp calls. The lockdown has only sped up the decline as businesses shut down and consumers cut back even more on expenses.

Over the second quarter, Zimbabweans used 10,407 terabytes, up from 6,661TB in the first quarter. International internet bandwidth capacity also increased by 2.8% to record 128,173Mbps from 124,627 Mbps recorded in the previous quarter.

POTRAZ anticipates that internet usage will keep growing “due to the increased adoption of e-learning, telecommuting, and e-conferencing” due to coronavirus restrictions.

This trend has been repeated globally; videoconference service Zoom has boomed under coronavirus, with daily participants rising to 300 million in April, up from 10 million in December.

Tough call

While data usage is rising, costs are also going up for telecoms companies. On average, mobile network operators reported a 217.7% growth in total costs over the quarter, well above revenue growth of 45.8%.

“The foreign currency challenges have affected network deployment and maintenance as spare parts, equipment and vendor support fees require foreign currency. Furthermore, the credit crunch also negatively affected network expansion,” says POTRAZ.

The regulator, however, says there is reason for optimism due to “the apparent stabilisation of the exchange rate”.

Mail trouble

Postal services have suffered the biggest damage. Lockdowns, in Zimbabwe and globally, have cut volumes of courier services. In Zimbabwe, total postal and courier volumes fell by a steep 79.7%. Companies such as Zimpost handled 272,881 items in the second quarter, compared to 1,342,957 recorded in the previous quarter.

“This is the lowest postal and courier volume the sector has experienced in a long time, after averaging above a million in the previous quarters,” according to POTRAZ.