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Vodacom Leads South African Mobile Subscriber Growth Amid Economic Challenges

Published December 31, 2023
7 months ago

Vodacom has emerged as the apparent victor in South Africa's mobile network operator tussle for subscribers throughout the first three-quarters of 2023. During a period mired with challenges ranging from persistent load-shedding to economic tribulations, Vodacom not only stayed afloat but also experienced a healthy increase in subscriber numbers, according to a recent MyBroadband analysis.

In contrast, competitors have been battling hard tides. Vodacom's growth stood out even more vividly against the backdrop of its rival MTN's plateaued consumer base and the declining subscriber counts of Telkom and Cell C. Yet, strikingly, Vodacom managed to boost its base by 5.8%, adding nearly 2.6 million users and raising its market share amongst top operators from 40.5% to 42.8%.

MTN, during the same period, only mustered a 0.7% increase in its customer base—a nominal uptick in subscribers, considering the roughly 260,000 additional users. The modest growth has marginally edged its market share upwards. However, it's Vodacom's proactive investment strategy in backup power systems, seemingly paying off, enabling it to keep towers online amidst load-shedding woes that perhaps scored high with consumers.

The impact of load-shedding has been significant, with cellular towers needing high-capacity backup solutions to combat long-duration power cuts effectively. Both Vodacom and MTN sank considerable capital into these emergency power mechanisms, a move that may have given them an edge over their smaller competitors in retaining and attracting customers who value consistent connectivity.

Due to the economic belt-tightening, buyer behaviors have shifted, with many consumers growing increasingly budget-conscious, thus prioritizing affordability in mobile products. The situation spells out particularly troubling times for an industry already caught in an uphill battle against infrastructural issues. Despite these odds, Vodacom recorded favorable numbers by the close of September 2023, ticking its customers up to approximately 47.26 million from the previous count of 44.67 million at 2022's year-end.

This trend did not extend to all, as Telkom and Cell C found themselves on the losing end of the spectrum. Telkom's descent saw a 1.4% drop in its customer base, while Cell C faced a steep 22.6% plunge, amounting to a loss of 2.4 million subscribers. Notably, Cell C's dwindling customer numbers also reflect a strategic pivot to eliminate lower-value subscribers to bolster its average revenue per user. These contrasting narratives underscore the intense competition within South Africa's telecommunications sector.

Rain, an emerging mobile network operator, remains somewhat of an anomaly. Though fully launched in May 2023, Rain was not included in the subscriber tallies as recent figures were not made available, leaving industry watchers curious about its market penetration. Rain has chosen a rather niche market entry point by bundling mobile SIMs with active fixed-5G packages, thus bypassing a direct competition stance with more established MNOs. How this strategy plays out for the company in terms of subscriber acquisition remains to be seen.

The overarching impact of these developments in the telecommunications landscape is a minor total cumulative growth of 0.1% in mobile subscribers across South Africa's four chief operators. This negligible rise paints a picture of an industry at a pivotal crossroads grappling with both infrastructure and economic trials, with operators having to innovate and vigorously compete to maintain and expand their consumer bases.

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