• It no longer has any physical radio network site in the Free State, Eastern Cape, and Northern Cape, Cell C said on Wednesday.
  • The former third cellphone operator is migrating all but its contract customers to roaming on MTN, in what it says will make it a more nimble operator.
  • More than a third of its network is now turned off, and it plans to be turning off towers in five more provinces this year.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

* This article has been updated below.

It has completed the decommissioning of its physical radio network across all of the Eastern Cape, Free State, and Northern Cape, Cell C announced on Wednesday.

The sometimes teetering network plans to have no more towers of its own by 2023, as it moves towards fully roaming on MTN's physical network for all but its contract customers – sometimes at prices lower than MTN customers pay.

Cell C is also the dominant provider for smaller virtual mobile network operators in South Africa, which means that millions of customers on the likes of Shoprite's k'nect offering now also use MTN's infrastructure, albeit on the radio frequency spectrum assigned to Cell C.

See also | How South Africa’s mobile virtual network operators stack up - with one clear winner

Cell C said in a statement it had turned off 34% of its physical network, and would turn off another 10% of its sites in the next six months, many of them in KwaZulu-Natal, the Western Cape, Limpopo, the North West, and Mpumalanga.

Originally licensed as a third mobile operator to break the duopoly of Vodacom and MTN, Cell C reiterated its strategy of being "a wholesale buyer and aggregator of network capacity", rather than trying to compete on the physical level.

Postpaid Cell C customers roam on the Vodacom network, while Cell C prepaid customers use the MTN radio network.

Cell has bled customers, while latecomer Telkom Mobile became the biggest competitor to the first two cellphone networks, with aggressive plans for 5G services – the kind that requires deep pockets.

Unlike pure virtual network operators, Cell C still runs its own core network and manages the billing of its customers.

That will allow it to focus on the customer experience, it argues, rather than spending what it "conservatively" estimates would be R27 billion worth of investment over the next 18 years to catch up with the networks MTN and Vodacom have built.

In 2018 a Cell C executive predicted that South Africa will, inevitably, see a consolidation of physical mobile networks under just one or two players.

* This article was updated after publication to remove a reference to Cell C as a "virtual" operator, and to correct a statement that Cell C is migrating entirely to the MTN radio network. Post-paid Cell C customers will, in fact, roam on Vodacom.

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