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WhatsApp outage highlights the scale of its worldwide use

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The WhatsApp logo on a smartphone screen.

The interruption of Facebook's WhatsApp platform on Monday hindered communication and business across the globe. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

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Monday’s outage of Facebook and its Instagram platform meant fewer memes shared, for sure, and may have cost Facebook millions in revenue. But let’s talk about another Facebook property that went offline, WhatsApp. For many parts of the world, WhatsApp isn’t just some other way to text, it’s the primary way to communicate and even do business. The outage, for much of the planet, was no joke.

If you need kitchen supplies in Harare, Zimbabwe, Norlene Mkwemba is your woman. She’s a public health student but has a side business selling stuff like cups and juice bottles. She takes orders the night before school, “and after school, I can deliver to people’s offices,” she said.

Mkwemba’s customers reach her on WhatsApp and Facebook — and both were down at peak ordering time. “So people couldn’t place their orders, so I lost about five customers, which is a lot for me,” she said.

WhatsApp is a lifeline for business in a way that websites and even phone lines are not.

“Well, the internet is pretty slow in my city, right? So you find that websites are not exactly readily available and the data tariffs are really high, so people prefer buying WhatsApp bundles and Facebook bundles because they are cheaper and affordable,” Mkwemba said.

WhatsApp is a major communication and business platform in a lot of emerging markets.

Abraham Leno is in Kigali, Rwanda. He’s head of the Eastern Congo Initiative, a nonprofit advocacy group, and he said WhatsApp has made communication more accessible.

“Even the simplest phone, the cheapest phone, can allow you to connect with somebody anywhere in the world, and the data usage for WhatsApp is way cheaper than many other platforms,” Leno said.

Ninety percent of 16-to-64-year-olds in Argentina, Colombia and Brazil have the platform, according to Benjamin Gedan at the Wilson Center, a policy research organization. The outage affected everything from group chats to business and even the news.

“I mean, it was apocalyptic in Latin America,” he said. “Every newspaper headline was screaming about this WhatsApp outage, and it seemed like it was bringing the economy to a stop.”

A lot of emerging markets don’t have competitive telecom sectors, Gedan said, so you get expensive texting, for example — whereas with WhatsApp, texts are free.

“It’s been quite common in the development of telecom technologies that smartphones spread more quickly than the very expensive broadband infrastructure,” Gedan said.

When you have a power outage, it affects neighborhoods — maybe regions — but we are now in a world where a WhatsApp outage affects whole areas of the planet.

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