Vodacom's birthday gig flops

Read time 3min 20sec
Vodacom is planning more celebrations throughout the year, CEO Shameel Joosub said when launching the free data gift, which backfired yesterday.
Vodacom is planning more celebrations throughout the year, CEO Shameel Joosub said when launching the free data gift, which backfired yesterday.

Vodacom is facing a backlash this morning from a large number of its 33 million subscribers, after its 24-hour free data promotion turned into a reputational mess as complaints poured in about a lack of coverage.

Vodacom - SA's largest network - in an unprecedented move yesterday gave all its 33 million customers a free gigabyte of data to celebrate its 20-year anniversary, with "no strings attached". However, the gift - which coincided with Mother's Day - proved to be a burden for many users, who were unable to use the network, although some expressed happiness with the data.

Complaints across several social media sites this morning ranged from allegations of false advertising, to people being unable to use paid-for data, as well as serious issues of a total lack of any network coverage, which would be problematic in the event of an emergency.

Although Vodacom is still conducting a post-mortem on data use on the day, download speeds as low as 12Kbps were reported online yesterday. Spokesman Richard Boorman says the promotion "was a win when it comes to bridging the digital divide and making data accessible to a much wider proportion of the population".

However, he notes, "there are always things to learn from trying out new ideas and taking risks. We'll definitely be spending quite a bit of time understanding those lessons and using the information to improve services."


Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx, notes people will far easier forgive an explained network outage than a massive promise that is not delivered upon. "It's the scale of the promise, not the scale of the outage."

Vodacom's free gift was punted through at least two full-page advertisements in newspapers yesterday. In a statement leading up to its promotion, it notes that - 20 years after its launch - the "cellphone has become an indispensable tool used by more than four billion people worldwide".

What users are saying:

"This is useless promo I mean who would spend all 1GB data for a day why not 20 days since its their 20th anniversary."
"I could basically not even use my normal internet at all due to the exceptionally slow response time which made my internet connection time out continuously. I can only assume that this was caused by an overload on the network ..... not a well thought out plan."
"Cannot make a call, buy airtime, buy bundles, send and sms, wasn't a law passed about this? What if I was in an emergency, trying to call for help while bleeding to death? Fine the ********, fine them a years revenue, maybe they'll lift their fat arses and actually try to provide a service."
"Dear @Vodacom thanx for nothing the free data gift was a disaster yesterday."
"So the gig that @Vodacom gave us for free seems to have stopped my phone working or downloading...nice one guys, no such thing as free lunch."
"@Vodacom the net was effectively useless to me yday.. Have 4 devices, therefore 4free gigs... I only managed to use 64mb."
"It's clear from the feedback that @Vodacom messed up yesterday!"
"I am beyond annoyed with @Vodacom at this point. I may just reconsider my 3 contracts, to another provider."
"So to celebrate 20 years @Vodacom crashed own network? Worst day ever."
"@Vodacom thank you very much for the 1GB, enjoyed it lots, happy 20th. Vodacom for life." (sic)
Sources: Twitter, Facebook and

The operator points out that when it activated the phones of more than 36 000 subscribers for the first time, on 1 June, it was estimated that the market could potentially grow to 250 000 users. Now, more than 60 million SIM cards are actively in use.

CEO Shameel Joosub, who has been with the company since its inception, said "to share our birthday with the nation is truly special, and we're proud to have been able to play our own small part in the story of South Africa".

Joosub added the offer was just the beginning of celebrations. "We're planning a year of celebrations and have new firsts lined up throughout the year."


Ovum analyst Richard Hurst says, had the promotion worked, it would have been a public relations coup for Vodacom, but instead left the company with egg on its face. He says Vodacom should have been aware of the amount of strain its network would take. "It was a great idea; pity about the execution."

Hurst adds the situation highlights the balancing act mobile operators need to do with the pending mobile data tsunami. Data use has been growing at far faster rates than any other network service, and network operators are increasingly pushing its uptake.

Vodacom's offer turned out to be a customer relations disaster, regardless of whether it was free or not, says Hurst. The company was this morning the second biggest trending topic on Twitter, after Mother's Day.

Have your say
Facebook icon
Youtube play icon