Big twist in 5G speeds in South Africa

Vodacom has turned the tables on MTN regarding 5G speeds in South Africa, according to MyBroadband Speedtest app data analysed by Analytico.

5G is the latest generation of mobile network technology, offering better speeds, lower latency, and greater capacity than its predecessors.

Vodacom was the first to launch a mobile 5G network in South Africa in May 2020, followed by MTN around a month later.

Both these operators have rapidly expanded their 5G networks to reach all major metros and several larger towns across South Africa’s nine provinces.

MTN quickly caught up on Vodacom’s one-month lead thanks to an aggressive 5G rollout strategy.

Whereas Vodacom rarely made mention of its 5G network growth in many of its financial updates in 2021 and 2022, MTN heavily punted its 5G rollout.

In the first half of 2022, it added 443 new 5G sites to its network in South Africa, a 47% increase.

That meant it added roughly half the number of base stations it installed in the previous 18 months in a third of the time.

When Analytico previously compared 5G speeds between the two operators in October 2022, MTN’s 5G download and upload speeds obliterated Vodacom.

This time, Vodacom was top dog in 5G download speeds, crushing MTN’s average of 176.33Mbps with a speed of 238.39Mbps.

Since October 2022, Vodacom’s average 5G download speed has improved by 35%, while MTN’s declined by 24%.

MTN managed to maintain the highest average upload speed — recording 38.81Mbps compared to Vodacom’s 30.33Mbps.

However, its average upload speed had declined by about 2.4Mbps from the previous comparison, whereas Vodacom’s improved by roughly 8Mbps.

Vodacom’s 5G network also showed a substantial improvement in latency from the previous assessment, while MTN’s worsened.

The table below compares the average Vodacom and MTN 5G mobile speeds recorded on the MyBroadband Speedtest App since the start of 2023.

Average 5G mobile speeds in South Africa — MyBroadband Speedtest App
Network Download speed Upload speed Latency
Vodacom 238.39Mbps 30.33Mbps 23.54ms
MTN 176.33Mbps 38.81Mbps 29.47ms

One reason for MTN and Vodacom switching places on 5G speeds could be the yellow network’s increased focus on load-shedding resilience rather than next-generation network equipment.

MTN also switches off some of its 5G network equipment during higher load-shedding stages to conserve battery power at its towers.

In March 2023, MTN South Africa CEO Charles Molapisi told Sunday Times the operator was shifting some of its capital expenditure into backup power at the cost of its 5G expansion.

“There is an increased adoption of 5G, though we can’t quickly ramp up the coverage this year as we wanted to,” said Molapisi.

Molapisi said their 5G rollout plans wouldn’t be completely paused but would be reviewed monthly to see what could be done.

MTN’s latest annual financial results provide more details about Molapisi’s comments, showing that MTN had only added 155 new 5G sites in the second half of 2022. That was 65% fewer than in the previous six months.

Despite this slowdown, MTN still appears to be leading Vodacom in 5G coverage.

MTN South Africa executive for sustainability and corporate affairs Jacqui O’Sullivan told MyBroadband that the operator had “close to” 2,000 5G sites in the country and that MTN was on track to achieve over 25% 5G population coverage.

“This year, our focus is to densify in areas to ensure a good 5G experience. We also will expand in areas where data demand is growing,” O’Sullivan said.

Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy said the operator had 1,150 5G base stations by 31 March 2023. That was sufficient to cover 17.9% of South Africa’s population with 5G.

While it has fewer 5G base stations than MTN, its latest figure reflected a 165% increase from 31 March 2023, when it had only 434 5G base stations.

Kennedy said that Vodacom could continue to expand its 5G network to ensure that we invest prudently and at a pace that remains ahead of customer demand.

The table below provides a breakdown of the average 5G speeds recorded on Vodacom and MTN’s networks in each province since the start of 2023.

5G speeds in South Africa — by vendor and network
Network Download speed Upload speed Latency
Vodacom 246.85Mbps 36.77Mbps 22.16ms
MTN 171.23Mbps 43.67Mbps 31.35ms
Vodacom 206.77Mbps 20.81Mbps 25.41ms
MTN 175.01Mbps 43.08Mbps 32.86ms
Western Cape
Vodacom 237.16Mbps 26.42Mbps 21.48ms
MTN 172.80Mbps 31.48Mbps 22.9ms
Eastern Cape
Vodacom 231.18Mbps 24.91Mbps 32.01ms
MTN 210.89Mbps 34.39Mbps 29.98ms
Vodacom 231.01Mbps 32.96Mbps 23.96ms
MTN 155.61Mbps 39.15Mbps 26.82ms
Free State
Vodacom 220.23Mbps 24.81Mbps 30.83ms
MTN 184.15Mbps 25.90Mbps 29.07Mbps
North West*
Vodacom 254.16Mbps 39.90Mbps 43.64ms
MTN 199.42Mbps 34.58Mbps 48.32ms
Vodacom 184.03Mbps 35.72Mbps 23.84ms
MTN 175.67Mbps 45.89Mbps 32.36ms
Northern Cape*
Vodacom 243.02Mbps 22.62Mbps 21.48ms
MTN 172.80Mbps 31.48Mbps 22.97ms
*Less than 100 unique devices used in tests.

Now read: Fastest mobile speeds in South Africa — with one network hitting over 1Gbps

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Big twist in 5G speeds in South Africa