Four major mobile networks are battling it out for their place in the South African market — Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, and Cell C.
According to their latest available results, these four networks had over 112 million active SIMs in the country.
Two operators — Vodacom and MTN — have been around for almost three decades and have expanded their operations to several other countries.
Cell C entered the market shortly after the turn of the century, and Telkom launched its mobile network in 2010. Both these smaller players have also amassed millions of subscribers.
South Africa has somewhat limited fixed-line broadband infrastructure outside of cities and towns, and much of the population lives in rural areas where mobile connectivity is the best option.
That means many people rely on cellphone networks — not only for essential day-to-day communication — but also for accessing the Internet for entertainment and information.
Below we’ve compared several important operational and financial metrics that provide insight into how Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, and Cell C’s businesses compare and how they fit into the market.
While Rain has seen significant growth since stepping onto the scene in 2016, it operates a data-only network with no traditional cellular services like non-LTE voice calls or SMS.
Rain is more focused on providing affordable uncapped broadband services as an alternative option in areas where fixed-line connectivity is scant.
Its owner — Arc Investments — also shares very few details on operational performance, like subscriber numbers.
Hanno Labuschagne 8 January 2023
Vodacom dominates by subscriber numbers
Subscribers are the lifeblood of a mobile network.
As of September 2022, Vodacom was the biggest mobile network operator in South Africa based on this metric, with 45.51 million accounting for over 40% of the total subscriber market share in the country.
MTN came in second, with 35.88 million subscribers.
Telkom’s mobile division surpassed Cell C’s subscribers in late 2020 to become the third biggest operator in the country.
It continued to widen the gap and had over 5 million more subscribers by September 2022.
The table below summarises the number of subscribers and subscriber market share of the four major mobile networks in South Africa.
MTN rules in network performance
When it comes to network performance, MTN has been trouncing Vodacom and the other operators over the past few years.
In the MyBroadband Insights Q3 2022 report, we analysed 411,999 speed tests completed by 9,190 MyBroadband Speed Test App users across South Africa between 1 July and 30 September 2022.
MTN’s network achieved an average download speed of 83.97Mbps, substantially higher than the 52.22Mbps recorded on Vodacom’s network. Its average upload speed was also nearly double that of Vodacom.
The two leaders were some way ahead of the three smaller players. Telkom and Cell C were neck and neck with download speeds of 30.10Mbps and 15.13Mbps. Cell C just edged Telkom with average uploads of 11.72Mbps compared to 10.82Mbps.
However, in Rain’s case, it should be noted that the operator limits most of its packages to a certain speed, as they are all uncapped.
The table below compares the network performance of South Africa’s major mobile networks.
Vodacom and MTN have extensive 4G coverage — Telkom and Cell C piggyback
Vodacom, MTN, and Telkom have detailed coverage maps on their websites which show where they have 2G, 3G, 4G/LTE, and 5G connectivity.
However, it is important to note that these maps use complex calculations to estimate where the operators’ towers are supposed to provide connectivity.
Real-world experience might vary due to environmental impacts on signal distribution and radio equipment parameters.
Based on these maps alone, it would appear that Vodacom and MTN lead with similar amounts of 4G coverage, albeit concentrated in different areas.
Both operators claim to cover nearly 100% of the country’s population with 4G.
Telkom is far behind in 4G coverage, which is why it relies on roaming agreements to connect customers in areas outside its availability area.
Cell C also provides a network coverage map, but it did not appear to work when zooming out over larger areas, so getting a complete perspective on its 4G coverage was impossible.
Regardless, the company is at an advanced stage of decommissioning its own radio network and will fully migrate all customers to Vodacom and MTN. Therefore, it will technically have zero towers.
The three maps below compare Vodacom, MTN, and Telkom’s 4G coverage in South Africa.
MTN’s 5G lead
Regarding cutting-edge 5G connectivity coverage, MTN has overtaken Vodacom after its early lead.
MTN was the first to pass 1,000 5G sites in South Africa and had over 1,400 5G sites in South Africa at the time of publication. That is despite being beaten to the launch by Vodacom by about a month in 2020.
Vodacom has not recently shared any data on its latest number of live 5G sites, but previously told MyBroadband it offered 5G coverage in 273 suburbs.
Whereas MTN has been very vocal about its rapidly expanding network in financial results, Vodacom failed to mention its 5G rollout’s progress in its latest update.
In November 2022, Telkom became the newest mobile network to commercially launch 5G connectivity on its network, with 136 live sites.
Cell C is yet to launch 5G on its network. The operator is at an advanced stage of decommissioning its own network infrastructure as part of a financial turnaround process and will have to use a roaming partner’s network to offer 5G.
Because 5G coverage areas are still scant, the zoomed-out coverage maps of the operators don’t show every location, so we have opted not to compare them in this article.
Revenue market share remains consistent
Overall, revenue market share has remained similar for all four operators since 2013.
Using the latest available full-year financial results showed that Vodacom held the greatest share of revenue of all the operators — 43% — by the end of its 2021 financial year.
MTN South Africa’s revenue accounted for 26% of the overall revenue pie, while Telkom claimed 23%.
Although Telkom’s share of revenue is significantly larger than MTN’s when measured against subscriber market share, it should be noted it includes revenue from its fixed-line business.
Cell C’s revenue share has hovered between 8-9% since 2013.
The chart below shows the revenue market share of the four biggest mobile networks in South Africa between 2013 and 2021.