WhatsApp outage left Minnesota man with limited access to family in Honduras

The communication app helps immigrants like Roy Guzman keep in touch with far away family members

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Facebook and WhatsApp logos are displayed on portable electronic devices in San Francisco. The recent outage took down the main source of communication for a majority of people in Latin America.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images 2014

When an outage knocked Facebook and its various affiliate sites out for several hours earlier this week, it also took down WhatsApp, the main source of communication for a majority of people in Latin America.

Roy Guzman, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota, uses WhatsApp to communicate with his parents in Central America. 

“I use it to communicate with my family. So most of my family, including my parents, they live in Honduras in Tegucigalpa,” Guzman said.

The percentage of people across Latin America using WhatsApp is high. In Argentina, Colombia and Brazil the percentage is more than 90 percent, according to the Global Web Index’s 2020 Social Media User Trends Report. WhatsApp can be used in various ways — from calls, to video calls, to sending voice memos or regular text messages. People can also share photos and videos.

Facebook officials have said the outage was caused by errors that happened during routine maintenance to its network.

Guzman said he believes it’s so popular because it’s free while international calls and texts are expensive.

“In fact, it was my family in Honduras who told me about it first. And so, I’ve been using it for a while,” he said.

Guzman was busy teaching classes on Monday. And he didn’t find out about the outage until late in the afternoon, he said.

He used WhatsApp to call his mom the night before.

When asked when he was finally able to connect with his family, Guzman realized he hadn’t spoken to them in a few days.

“When did I hear back from my family? I heard back from them — oh my goodness — I actually haven't talked to them since Sunday,” he said laughing.

Having WhatsApp go down for another prolonged period would be a huge problem, he said.

“It would be major, because I am thinking about the fact that we either communicate through Facebook or through WhatsApp so at that point, oh my goodness, I would probably have to email a cousin or so to get a hold of them because my mom’s phone number for instance, I actually don’t even have that because again, we do everything by WhatsApp, so I don’t even know her phone number,” Guzman said.

And even if he emailed his mom, it probably wouldn’t be helpful because he doesn’t know the last time she checked her email, he said.

But will this week’s outage lead him to find a backup communication method? 

“You actually just scared me with this question,” he laughed.  “Because I’m thinking, oh my gosh, what if… I couldn’t get a hold of them [parents]. It’s really weird. And I’ve never done long-distance phone calls from my phone to Honduras.”

Guzman said he will be talking to his parents about another way to communicate if there's another outage.

“I feel like I'm having like a little existential crisis,” Guzman said.  “Communication is so important, especially when you have my parents — if anything would have happened, like, health-wise or whatnot, I need to know right away. I'm their only child.”

Vicki Adame covers Minnesota’s Latino communities for MPR News via Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities.

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