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  • South Africa’s virtual mobile network space is complicated.
  • Much like loyalty programmes, it may take skill to extract full value out of some operators’ offerings.
  • But a comparison of several leading MVNOs in South Africa reveals one winner that’s cheaper even than its parent network.
  • Here’s how some of the major reseller cellphone networks in SA stack up.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

South Africa has just four licensed mobile operators, but thanks to mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), you have a lot more options than that.

In essence, these rebranded networks buy data and airtime in bulk from a licensed operator, and then piggy-back on their infrastructure while working hard to offer some type of differentiation. 

In theory this means that, with enough buying power, the MVNO can pass some of the bulk discounts on to their customers. But the reality is often less appealing. Few are able to compete with the non-virtual network operators on all price points, and instead offer a single difference (for example, lower data prices), value adds (like tie-ins with loyalty programmes), and then may aim to make up the costs with other sectors (higher call rates, up-sells with devices, or a flat monthly fee).

This means there is potential to find an MVNO perfectly aligned with your spending habits and usage patterns - and if that happens to be with a brand you already shop with or support, then there’s potential to extract some real value.

The world of MVNOs is, however, full of mystery. Although some are open about the fact that they are piggy-backing off a specific network’s infrastructure, others make no official mention of it - and go to great lengths to bury important information like per minute and megabyte costs.

Cell C, which is the dominant provider to virtual operators, was unwilling to provide Business Insider South Africa with a full and comprehensive list of MVNOs currently on its network. Instead the company shared details of just eight out of 21 companies currently registered as MVNOs on their network.

According to the network, this was because some MVNOs did not give Cell C permission to disclose their affiliation.

Cell C, which in recent years has been beset with problems, was the first local operator to enable the MVNO commercial model. 

In total, Cell C’s 21 MVNOs have signed up over two million customers - and in its June 2020 financial results, the company reported an 18% revenue increase in this segment of the business. Its wholesale revenue contributed to 7% of its total revenue in the first half of 2020 - and MVNOs alone added revenue of R399 million for the period.

Competing mobile network operators were slow on the uptake when it comes to MVNOs, but they are now moving into this market.

Directly comparing the various plans is difficult, if not deliberately made impossible, and several MVNOs fail to list basic information like call and data rates on their website, choosing rather to highlight deals on devices or rewards. In these instances, Business Insider contacted call centres directly - and in at least two cases the query resulted in call lasting more than 10 minutes as staff tried to establish these details.

Even so, there are some clear winners and losers in the MVNO space. 

The newly-launched PnP Mobile, the only MVNO officially linked to MTN, offers better data rates than its parent network - but calls costs are nearly 50% higher. SmartShopper members do stand to benefit further, though, with some qualifying spend resulting in up to 5MB of free data for every R10 spent in store.

On the Cell C side, Shoprite’s new k'nect MVNO offers a compelling deal: calls and data are marginally cheaper than Cell C’s, and shoppers already integrated into the Xtra Savings ecosystem stand to get additional benefits as well. No other MVNO offers calling rates even close to those of Cell C’s, but FNB’s Connect comes close to its data rates with a default cost of 20c per MB.

As with any mobile network, value increases dramatically with the purchase of bundles, and several MVNOs offer sliding scales of benefits depending on loyalty programmes or accounts held - but for the sake of comparison, Business Insider used default rates outside of bundles. Here’s how they stack up:

MVNO Comparison
MVNO Comparison

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