Mobile network winners and losers during lockdown

When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national lockdown in March 2020 it was a shock to the system. The lockdown changed the way people worked and lived within a matter of days.

Millions of South Africans had to transition from office-based jobs to working from home, and for many people, their entertainment moved online.

To make it work, people needed the right equipment and fast broadband connections. It was a busy time for tech retailers and Internet service providers.

Webcams sold out, laptop sales shot up, and phones were ringing off the hook at ISPs. Business was booming.

There was, however, a challenge for mobile operators who suddenly had to carry much more traffic than usual.

Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub revealed data traffic increased by 98% in the three months following the lockdown. Other mobile operators faced a similar jump in volumes.

More people subscribed to mobile broadband services, and those who were already subscribed started to use more data.

This was expected. Zoom replaced face-to-face meetings, Netflix replaced cinemas, and online gaming replaced drinking with friends.

The name of the game for mobile operators and ISPs was bandwidth. And lots of it.

For fixed-line networks, it was relatively easy to increase network capacity, but mobile operators had a tougher time. They needed additional spectrum to increase their radio access network capacity.

ICASA helped out by issuing temporary spectrum to Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, Rain, and Liquid Telecom in the 700MHz, 800MHz, 2,300MHz, 2,600MHz, and 3,500MHz bands.

It took some time to get additional radios and other network equipment to roll out the spectrum, but the extra spectrum ultimately helped a great deal to ease congestion and even increase speeds.

MTN was able to increase its speed from 41Mbps in Q4 2019 to over 64Mbps in Q4 2020.

Vodacom, Telkom, and Cell C were also able to increase their average network speed despite the spike in traffic.

Rain was, however, dealt a blow. The frequencies it received were not suitable for rapid deployment with their existing radios.

It struggled to cope with the increased demand for data on its network and it started to experience congestion.

Rain’s average download speed plummeted during the lockdown and many of its subscribers complained about connectivity problems and poor speeds.

MTN was  the biggest winner during the lockdown while Rain was the biggest loser. This is clearly illustrated in the year-on-year change in the table below.

Average Download Speed in Mbps
Operator Q4 2019 Q4 2020 YoY change
MTN 40.64 64.31 58%
Telkom 21.63 25.74 19%
Cell C 16.48 18.79 14%
Vodacom 32.23 33.71 5%
Rain 16.44 11.41 -31%

Network speed changes over 3 years

To get an overview of network performance over time, MyBroadband looked at the average download speed from January 2018 to December 2020.

It shows that MTN grew its average download speed from 22Mbps to 64Mbps. This was made possible through a network investment of over R50 billion over the last 5 years.

Vodacom also invested heavily in its network and was able to increase the average download speed from 22Mbps to 34Mbps.

Rain was the only operator whose network performance declined over this period – down from 23Mbps in 2018 to 11Mbps in 2020.

The charts below provide a look at how the average network performance for each mobile operator changed over the past three years.

MTN (Average download speed in Mbps)

Telkom (Average download speed in Mbps)

Cell C (Average download speed in Mbps)

Vodacom (Average download speed in Mbps)

Rain (Average download speed in Mbps)

Now read: The best and worst mobile networks in South Africa

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Mobile network winners and losers during lockdown