The names behind South Africa’s biggest mobile networks

Four international telecommunications powerhouses provide the equipment that power South Africa’s major mobile networks.

These vendors are Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, and ZTE.

Huawei is the only vendor whose equipment is used by all four of the country’s mobile operators with physical radio access networks — Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, and Rain.

The Chinese behemoth has been in the business of telecoms for much longer than it has made smartphones but is still young compared to Nokia and Ericcson.

When it was founded in 1987, it initially manufactured phone switches.

In 1996, China’s government began pushing for domestically-developed communications firms, helping to spur Huawei’s research and growth.

Outside of China, Huawei started building communications networks in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East in the late 1990s.

It set up a local subsidiary in South Africa in 1999 and has since partnered with all local operators — including Cell C at one point.

In 2012, Huawei passed Ericsson as the world’s biggest telecommunications equipment manufacturer.

While its extensive government backing should be acknowledged, this is nonetheless an impressive feat considering it only started in telecoms about 120 years after Ericsson.

Huawei’s equipment has been among the best-performing of any vendor over the past few years, according to several analyses performed by MyBroadband.

Most recently, we specifically tested 5G performance over six months leading up to August 2023 and found that Huawei offered the best download and upload speeds on all networks, as shown in the table below.

5G Mobile Vendor Performance
Vendor Network Download speed (Mbps) Upload speed (Mbps) Latency (ms)
Huawei Vodacom 268.20 30.67 22
Nokia Vodacom 245.41 21.67 25
Huawei MTN 212.51 40.35 26
Ericsson MTN 210.00 31.18 33
Huawei Telkom 203.65 27.61 22
ZTE MTN 193.78 32.84 19

Nokia — once reputed for its near-indestructible mobile phones — is another major player in the local radio networking space.

The Finnish firm was originally founded as a pulp milling company in 1871 and only entered the network and radio industry in 1981.

Nokia bought out Siemens in 2013, after initially running a joint venture with the company.

At the time, Siemens had the longest history of any telecoms vendor in South Africa, starting with rolling out the country’s first telegraph line.

Nokia’s equipment is currently used on two networks — Vodacom and Rain.

Swedish company Ericsson also has a long history in South Africa, beginning with the installation of four telephone exchanges between 1896 and 1900 and selling portable field handsets to British soldiers during the Second Anglo-Boer War.

After the British won, Ericcson established a strong local presence over several decades.

The company was the first to provide mobile network infrastructure to MTN when it launched in 1994.

The companies recently extended their partnership to enhance MTN’s mobile financial services platform MoMo through the Ericsson Wallet Platform.

ZTE is the newest entrant to the South African market and the second Chinese player to enter the fray.

The company was founded two years before Huawei but has not been as successful at breaking into the international market.

It first set up local operations in 2001, offering products and services like broadband, e-education, data centre, security, transport, smart rail, video conferencing, and routers.

ZTE started providing radio equipment for MTN’s network in 2019 via a 5G pilot in the Western Cape.  This network has been extended to a “large number” of sites.

The company has also conducted 5G commercial trials with more limited deployments for other unspecified networks.

The table below breaks down which radio networking equipment vendors South Africa’s biggest telecommunications operators use.

Mobile operator Network equipment vendor (s)
Vodacom Huawei
MTN Ericsson
Telkom Huawei
Rain Huawei

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The names behind South Africa’s biggest mobile networks