South Africa’s R281,290 per GB scandal

People visiting South Africa can pay extraordinary data rates when roaming on the country’s networks — with at least one charging as much as R281,290 per GB.

Even the most affordable fees are nearly ten times as much as local costs.

Roaming refers to someone using their mobile phone or SIM outside their native network.

When a cellphone user visits a country, the mobile network they use often has a roaming agreement with a local mobile operator so that the visitor can continue using their cellphone number abroad.

The accrued costs are more than what the users usually pay in their native country due to the negotiations that allow the foreign service to operate on the local network.

However, some telecommunications companies charge excessively high fees for pay-as-you-use mobile data when roaming.

American operator T-Mobile, for instance, charges R281.29 ($15) per MB in South Africa — or R281,290 per GB.

We converted from megabytes to gigabytes using metric units rather than binary multiples, as operators globally may use different standards.

O2, a British telco, charges R173.33 per MB — or R173,530 per GB.

Some operators offer daily, weekly, and monthly packages that are much cheaper than pay-as-you-use rates.

For instance, UK telco EE charges £8.45 per day for 500MB of data, which works out to R0.41 per MB and R410 per GB.

Prices can vary wildly between countries and carriers.

For example, Vodafone Australia and Optus both charge users R12,480 per GB.

This is 15 times more than what Orange Egypt charges and 22 times less than T-Mobile.

The table below shows telcos’ per MB and GB rates for out-of-bundle roaming data in South Africa.

Mobile Network Country Cost per MB in local currency Rands per MB Rands per GB**
T-Mobile USA 15 USD R281.29 R281,290
O2 UK 7.20 GBP R173.53 R173,530
My T Mauritius 50 MUR R20.50 R20,500
Vodafone Australia 1 AUD R12.48 R12,480
Optus Australia 1 AUD R12.48 R12,480
Econet Lesotho 1 LSL R5 R5,000
Econet Zimbabwe 1 ZWD R1.45 R1,450
Orange Egypt 2 EGP R0.79 R790
**These values were calculated using decimal as opposed to binary multiples.

African countries have attempted to address this issue since 2007 when the Southern African Development Community signed the “roam like at home” initiative.

Cell C strongly supported this initiative, saying in 2018 that it had “reduced the cost to foreign operators for international incoming data roaming by 89%, while the cost to Cell C from foreign operators has decreased by 49% over the same period.

It explained that roaming costs are proportional to what foreign networks charge local operators.

MTN also supported the initiative, saying it and other Southern African operators have strived to reduce these costs to encourage data roaming.

Vodacom said it had specifically appointed people “whose main job it is to negotiate lower roaming rates with foreign operators.”

While operators worldwide have introduced roaming packages that subscribers can buy, they have not reduced standard pay-as-you-use tariffs.

A Vodacom spokesperson told MyBroadband that multiple factors influence these high prices but that the rates are still reciprocal.

These factors include the agreements between the networks, the regulatory environment, and the operational costs of cross-border network access.

Operational costs include spectrum and maintenance fees and investments to ensure seamless connectivity, they said.

“Vodacom negotiates with various international roaming partner networks to secure favourable wholesale rates to our inbound roaming partner networks,” the operator’s spokesperson said.

“It is also important to note that the rates are based on roaming agreements and that Vodacom does not have control over what the foreign networks charge their customer.”

MTN emphasised Vodacom’s latter point.

“MTN does not set inbound roaming subscriber rates for visitors or foreign customers,” it said.

“The roaming rates are set by their own operators.”

Cell C and Telkom were asked for comment but did not provide feedback by publication.

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South Africa’s R281,290 per GB scandal