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The Surge of Mobile Virtual Network Operators in South Africa

Published December 30, 2023
7 months ago

South Africa's telecommunications landscape is undergoing a quiet revolution as mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) begin to carve out a niche for themselves amidst the traditionally competitive environment dominated by big mobile network operators (MNOs). These MVNOs, including prominent names like Afrihost Air Mobile, Capitec Connect, FNB Connect, Melon Mobile, Mr Price Mobile, Shoprite K’nect Mobile, Standard Bank Mobile, and TFG Connect, are not just surviving; they're thriving with substantial subscriber growth noted in 2023.

Unlike the heavyweights—Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, and Cell C—MVNOs differentiate themselves through unique value propositions that appeal directly to consumers' specific needs and preferences. An illustrative example is FNB Connect, which aligns its telecommunications rewards with its banking services, offering free data, voice minutes, and SMSs based on customer interaction through the eBucks Rewards level. This integration saw FNB Connect disburse R300 million worth of data and voice minutes to qualifying customers in the first half of the 2023 financial year, signifying a considerable value back into consumers' pockets.

Shoprite K’nect Mobile, another key player, entices recharges with an additional 20% airtime, leveraging the retail giant's footprint to enhance consumer incentives. These strategies signify a trend where MVNOs are not just a revenue stream but a means to enhance brand loyalty, cross-sell services, and fortify customer relations by integrating their core offerings with telecom services.

The rise of the MVNO is not seen to pose a significant threat to the incumbent MNOs’ financial health for a crucial reason: MVNOs don't possess their own network infrastructure but leverage existing networks like Cell C and MTN to deliver their services. Telkom has also indicated its plans to embrace MVNOs, and Vodacom is in discussions to potentially join this alliance. Much like the relationship between open-access fibre network operators such as Vumatel, Openserve, and the ISPs that utilize their infrastructure, MVNOs pay for network access but distinguish themselves by customizing their products far beyond the standard offerings.

Despite the competitive landscape, the big four – Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, and Cell C – have seen a meager 0.1% growth in their customer base in the first nine months of 2023, emphasizing the static nature of the market. In contrast, the upbeat 2022 MVNO Report forecasts MVNOs to potentially double their subscribers by 2025, capturing 10-12% of the total market share.

Arthur Goldstuck, a respected ICT expert and CEO of World Wide Worx, has commended MVNOs for their marketing savvy and customer-oriented services. Underscoring the importance of flexibility and personalization, Goldstruck highlights companies such as Melon Mobile, which notably allows customers to sign up and download prepaid eSIMs—an innovation that bypasses traditional storefront transactions. His insights suggest that while the MVNO adoption rate has been gradual, primarily due to earlier reticence from MNOs, the tide is turning as larger networks recognize the benefit of maximizing their network capacities through MVNO partnerships.

In embracing MVNOs, MNOs see an opportunity to target customers desiring benefits not traditionally offered, such as Melon Mobile's aggressive unlimited calling bundle that comes without the need for contracts.

The transition to MVNO services appears to be an evolution rather than a revolution, with MVNOs progressively finding their foothold in the South African market. As they continue to specialize and cater to niche demands, consumer choices may shift significantly in the years to come, signaling that the days of unquestioned dominance by big MNOs may be wavering.

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