How SA operators' 4G availability compares

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All four of SA’s national operators are now closing in on 80% 4G availability nationally.
All four of SA’s national operators are now closing in on 80% 4G availability nationally.

MTN leads the pack in regards to 4G availability among South African mobile operators.

This was the biggest takeaway from the South Africa Mobile Network Experience report by mobile analytics company Opensignal. The report was published this morning.

Capturing over three billion individual measurements every day from over 100 million smartphones globally, Opensignal independently analyses mobile user experience on every major network operator around the globe.

A quick look at our awards table would suggest not much has changed in South Africa since our last report in February,” says Peter Boyland, senior analyst at Opensignal. “MTN remains the leader in our 4G availability measurements, with a score of 83.6%.

“MTN won our 4G availability award again, Vodacom kept hold of the medals for upload speed and latency experience, while the two operators tied for download speed and video experience just as they did six months ago.”

The South African government recently issued the long-awaited policy and policy direction for the licensing of high-demand spectrum, paving the way for wholesale open access network (WOAN) licensing.

In the policy, the minister of communications directs that a portion of unallocated high-demand spectrum must first be assigned to a network category of licensees, known as WOAN, and the remainder must then be assigned to other eligible licensees.

To mitigate the problems of spectrum shortages and expand 4G availability, operators were splitting and refarming their spectrum resources.

But far from stagnating, there are improvements across most of Opensignal’s measurements.

The firm notes all four of SA’s national operators – Cell C, MTN, Telkom and Vodacom – are now closing in on 80% 4G availability nationally, while at the urban level, MTN has passed the 90% mark in two cities.

In download speed experience, users on all four operators’ networks saw their scores increase at least 8%.

In this report, we’ve analysed the scores for all four national operators across all our metrics over the 90 days from the start of May 2019, including South Africa's five biggest cities – Cape Town, Durban, Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg and Tshwane,” says Boyland.

MTN, which is SA’s second biggest operator, has been top of Opensignal’s South African 4G availability leader board for a couple of years now, and the operator remains dominant with a winning score over four percentage points ahead of its rivals.

However, the mobile analytics firm says it was users on Telkom’s network who saw the most impressive boost in 4G availability, as its score jumped by well over eight percentage points.

It explains this leap has put Telkom into a three-way draw for second place with Cell C and Vodacom, which both saw their scores increase by at least three percentage points.

While MTN is the only operator to have passed 80% in national 4G availability, the other three players are all less than two percentage points away from this milestone.

“Based on the current rate of improvement, we fully expect to see all four operators pass the 80% mark in our next report – which will provide testament to the rapid maturing of the South African mobile market,” Boyland says.

Regarding video experience, the report says MTN and Vodacom remain neck-and-neck in its analysis, with both operators scoring 65 (out of 100).

The firm adds the rivals both saw their scores rise by around three points since the last report, meaning they continue to share the video experience award.

Cell C and Telkom remain in third and fourth place, but both saw larger increases – of five and four points respectively – to narrow the gap on the leaders.

Boyland notes the increase in MTN and Vodacom’s video experience scores means the two operators are on the cusp of “very good” (65-75) ratings in this metric – with users on their networks enjoying fast loading video times and almost non-existent stalling, even at higher resolutions.

By comparison, Cell C's score earned it a “good” rating (55-65), while Telkom remains in “fair” (40-55) territory – meaning users watching video on Telkom’s network in particular will likely struggle with longer load times and frequent stuttering, even at lower resolutions.

Video stars

In terms of 4G-only video experience, Cell C’s score has increased enough to tip it over into a “very good” rating – Opensignal now has three operators achieving 4G network scores with a “very good” ranking.

“And as 4G availability continues to increase, our overall video experience scores will continue to climb, making mobile video viewing more of a viable proposition across all networks,” says Boyland.

“And in a country where fixed-line broadband connections are relatively rare and the large majority of South Africans only connect to the Internet via cellular, this improvement has the potential to transform people’s lives.”

Looking at download speed, Opensignal is still seeing clear evidence of two tiers of mobile network experience in SA.

It points out MTN and Vodacom remain tied for the download experience award, with scores within a couple of megabits of the 20Mbps mark.

Meanwhile, Cell C and Telkom remain in a distinct second tier, with scores at least 7Mbps behind the leaders – although those scores are improving.

“All of our users on all four of the national operators' networks saw increases of at least 1Mbps in their download speed experience,” Boyland notes.

“But in percentage terms, the second-tier players – Cell C and Telkom – both saw double-digit growth in their scores: 16% and 11% respectively. Looking at the longer term, it’s MTN who has really worked to earn its shared prize in download speed experience. In the 12 months since our report in September 2018, MTN’s score has jumped over 21%, forcing a draw for our award and keeping the pressure on Vodacom.”

Source: Opensignal
Source: Opensignal

Stagnant upload speed

Opensignal, nonetheless, says while users in SA are seeing healthy improvements in their download speeds, the same can’t be said of the uplink side of their connections.

It notes that only one of the national operators saw any significant improvement in their upload speed experience scores: the winner Vodacom, which saw its score increase just over 6%. The other three operators, Cell C, MTN and Telkom, statistically saw no movement in their scores since the last report.

“The picture in upload gets worse when we isolate the operator's 4G networks. None of South Africa's national operators managed to improve their 4G upload speed scores – in fact, two of them, MTN and Telkom, saw declines of around 10% in our measurements,” Boyland explains.

“This is a relatively common phenomenon we have observed in maturing markets, as operators tend to focus their network and spectrum assets on improving download speeds, sometimes at the expense of upload. But upload experience is becoming increasingly important as mobile user habits shift from passive Internet consumption to user-generated content.”

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