Data worth millions of rands disappearing from two networks in South Africa

A MyBroadband investigation shows that Vodacom and Cell C still have problems with data disappearing from their users’ sim cards.

MyBroadband performed separate tests for disappearing airtime and data with SIMs from all four major network operators in South Africa.

The SIMs were inserted into identical Nokia 5 devices.

These devices run a near-stock version of Android and provide easy access to settings to disable mobile data use for all apps.

Together with disabling mobile data use for individual apps, the devices are also connected to a stable Wi-Fi connection to provide alternative Internet access for any necessary services.

We also confirmed that none of the SIMs were subscribed to any wireless application service provider’s premium content subscriptions, which can consume airtime and data.

Each SIM was also configured not to use any out-of-bundle data.

We loaded airtime and data, and the balance was monitored over two weeks using the USSD balance checks for each network.

These were also confirmed not to use any airtime or data.

The only other data or airtime consumption that remains is what networks use for their internal purposes, such as staying connected to the tower.

MyBroadband found that MTN and Telkom zero-rates this signalling traffic between a device and the tower, so customers only have to pay for the data they use.

The devices connected to Vodacom’s and Cell C’s networks had some data disappear from the respective balances.

The Vodacom SIM lost 1.36 megabytes over two weeks, while Cell C lost 1.27 megabytes (MB).

This may not seem like a significant problem, but the fact is that these networks are making users pay for data they cannot use.

In a previous test, MyBroadband calculated that the data lost on these two networks was worth millions of rands per month.

Although it’s a small amount of data for single user, if it is consistent across all their subscribers, it quickly becomes a lot of money.

Vodacom has 22.971 million data subscribers according to its latest quarterly trading update, while Cell C has approximately 5.7 million.

Using an out-of-bundle data rate of R0.29 per MB, Vodacom subscribers lost data worth over R9 million. Cell C subscribers lost data valued at nearly R2.1 million using the same calculation.

Disappearing data test results
Network Data Lost Airtime Lost Value of data lost monthly
MTN 0.00 MB R0.00 R0
Telkom 0.00 MB R0.00 R0
Cell C 1.27 MB
R0.00 R2,099,310
Vodacom 1.36 MB
R0.00 R9,059,762

Why data disappears on Vodacom and Cell C

Cell C chief technology officer Schalk Visser has previously explained that, even with mobile data disabled in the device’s settings, Android smartphones connected to an LTE network may still communicate with towers.

“Under the 3GPP LTE standards, data traffic is possible across the 4G mobile network even when the ‘mobile data’ setting is turned off,” Visser said.

Vodacom confirmed this, explaining that disappearing data happens because Android smartphones can use 4G mobile data even when the ‘mobile data’ setting is turned off.

“This is a function of how 4G is designed [and used by] the device, operating system, and relevant application developers,” a Vodacom spokesperson said.

“Testing has shown that small amounts of data are typically used for a connectivity test message in this way.”

Most applications will allow the handset settings to determine the bearer to be used, although app developers can force data over the mobile connection.

The second reason, Vodacom explained, relates to the default billing rules on a new prepaid SIM.

Vodacom lets new numbers go out-of-bundle using any airtime balance until the subscriber activates Data Limit Lock (DLL).

Only when DLL is opted into or if a data bundle is purchased — DLL will be set by default when the bundle is depleted — will out-of-bundle charges be stopped.

“We encourage customers to change their Data Limit Lock (DLL) to R0 as soon as they purchase a new prepaid SIM,” Vodacom said.

Now read: Cell C has become a Vodacom MVNO for its contract customers

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Data worth millions of rands disappearing from two networks in South Africa