Uncapped mobile broadband in South Africa — why networks throttle your connection

Running truly uncapped mobile broadband services is a tricky business, as the spectrum assigned to each mobile operator can only translate into a certain amount of data bandwidth, hence the need for fair usage policies (FUPs).

However, following the conclusion of the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa’s (Icasa) spectrum auction, the new spectrum could be used by mobile operators to improve their uncapped offerings.

MyBroadband reached out to MTN, Vodacom, Rain, and Telkom regarding their plans for uncapped mobile data. Only MTN and Rain had answered our questions by the time of publication.

MTN SA’s executive for corporate affairs, Jacqui O’Sullivan, said that MTN believes the availability of the new spectrum will enhance mobile operators’ ability to offer broader services, including uncapped data plans.

“MTN believes that the availability of high demand spectrum will play a crucial role in ensuring that network operators meet customers’ demands in an ever-growing data environment, not only to offer uncapped data plans but also to offer broader services,” she said.

O’Sullivan explained that MTN currently offers fixed-LTE and 5G uncapped data plans under its MyMTN Uncapped product lines, which are subject to a FUP.

“The FUP is used to protect the integrity of our network,” O’Sullivan stated.

“As with all acceptable use policies, if the customer uses more than a certain, predetermined ‘fair’ amount of data in a given timeframe, their line speed could slow down during peak times, in order to allow other users to access the network fairly.”

Rain said that all of its 5G Home products are uncapped.

“Our 5G Home products are all unlimited (uncapped), with their primary differentiators being speed and streaming quality,” it said.

“We offer different speeds and streaming resolutions to enable different price points to match customer needs.”

Why uncapped mobile broadband is a challenge

The table below shows how each mobile operator’s spectrum allocation increased following Icasa’s auction.

We have included the theoretical maximum capacity of O-band fibre as a comparison to illustrate the bandwidth constraints under which wireless networks operate.

This is why mobile operators are unlikely to do away with FUPs for uncapped services, as there is essentially an upper limit to the amount of bandwidth a single cellular network can provide.

Network Capacity pre-spectrum auction Capacity post-spectrum auction
Vodacom 81MHz 191MHz
MTN 76MHz 186MHz
Cell C 76MHz 86MHz
Telkom 162MHz 204MHz
Rain 191MHz 213MHz
Fibre (O-band) 17,500,000MHz

Examples of operators that launched uncapped wireless products that ran into challenges include Rain, Telkom, and Sentech.

Sentech ultimately canned its uncapped MyWireless product in November 2009.

In July 2020, Rain slipped down MyBroadband’s ISP rankings to replace Telkom as the lower-ranked Internet service provider in South Africa.

This was likely because Rain oversubscribed its 4G towers with uncapped customers. Subscribers complained about severely degraded speeds and unstable connections. Some said they could not use the Internet at all during certain hours of the day.

Telkom launched a nationwide uncapped LTE product in December 2015 after testing it with a specific base station.

The network operator soon had to implement a FUP as network performance began to degrade.

Uncapped LTE and 5G products available in South Africa and their FUPs are summarised below.

Uncapped LTE and 5G products
Network operator Plan Limits Price
MTN Home uncapped 4G 10Mbps 400GB FUP R399 x 36
Home uncapped 4G 20Mbps 600GB FUP R649 x 24
Home uncapped 4G 30Mbps 700GB FUP R749 x 36
Home uncapped 5G 50Mbps 1TB FUP R899 x 24
Home uncapped 5G 100Mbps 2TB FUP R999 x 24
Vodacom Home Internet LTE Uncapped 10Mbps 400GB FUP R449 x 24
Home Internet LTE Uncapped 20Mbps 600GB FUP R649 x 24
Home Internet LTE Uncapped 30Mbps 700GB FUP R749 x 24
Telkom LTE Wireless Unlimited All Hours 10Mbps 500GB FUP R449 x 12
LTE Wireless Unlimited All Hours 20Mbps 600GB FUP R599 x 12
LTE Wireless Unlimited Off-Peak 350GB FUP R349 x 12
Infinite — smartphone only 15GB FUP R299
Infinite Max — smartphone only 30GB FUP R399
Rain* Unlimited 4G for any device Basic quality streaming R479
Unlimited home 5G basic 720p streaming R499
Unlimited home 5G standard 1080p streaming R349*/R699
Unlimited home 5G premium 1080p streaming R999
Supersonic* Home Fixed-LTE LLite 400GB FUP R499
Home 5G Lite 400GB FUP R699
Home Fixed-LTE Premium 1TB FUP R899
Home 5G Premium 1TB FUP R999
*Supersonic and Rain offer their packages on a month-to-month basis
*Rain’s unlimited home 5G standard product is available for R349 for the first month

Now read: Telkom’s R229 uncapped LTE service tested — with great results

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Uncapped mobile broadband in South Africa — why networks throttle your connection