It goes without saying that operating a cellular phone network is a much more difficult and intricate task than operating, say, a Blu-ray player. Networks are involved in multi-million Rand contracts and have a duty to deliver services to their customer base.
Right after the first free elections in South Africa in 1994, two cell phone network providers were given a license to operate: Vodacom and MTN. The licenses were actually issued in 1993 but the two companies took a year before launching their operations in South Africa. The third major cell phone operator, Cell C, would come much later in 2001. In 2006, Cell C joined up with Virgin Mobile in a bid to expand its operations; although in early 2011, Cell C sold its shares to Virgin Mobile and launched another brand known as Red Bull Mobile. Last year another player joined the fray: Telkom with its 8ta ICT provider promises to be less complex in its plans and tariff system. For now 8ta will be operating using the MTN network until Telkom is able to set up its own.
Vodacom South Africa
Vodacom was spearheaded by Alan Knott-Craig who saw the potential for cell phones in South Africa. The initial projection was a very conservative goal of a quarter of a million subscribers in 10 years. They linked up with Siemens and Alcatel to supply them with mobile phones. In its first month of operations, Vodacom attracted 50 000 subscribers, and after 5 months Vodacom had a client base of 100 000.
Today, Vodacom has more than 5.5 million subscribers, which is a far cry from their small time expectations in 1994. They did this by offering one of the cheapest cell phone prices in the world. One of their angles in promoting their cheap phones was personal safety. They pushed the use of cell phones to fight crime especially car thefts and hijacking. They are also first to offer a fax service linked to cell phones and a pre-paid internet card. Through their Sigi pre-paid plans, they have been able to tap into a marginal market that would have never been able to otherwise afford a cell phone.
MTN South Africa
MTN South Africa is part of a larger group known as the MTN Group which has more than 152 million subscribers from Africa as well as the Middle East. It is estimated that MTN has cornered 37% of South African cell phone users with more than 20 million subscribers in South Africa alone. More than half of their subscribers opt for the 3G technology and the rest use 2G or the Edge plan coverage.
While MTN may play bridesmaid to Vodacom, they are credited for starting the pre-paid credits for cell phone users. They were also the pioneers in a tax billing system known as the MTN Zone. When they launched this, their subscriber platform skyrocketed to 17 million because it became more affordable to own and maintain a cell phone.
MTN is quite unique in their commitment to the community, and they show this by promoting a green awareness campaign, and through an active participation in national sports and music sponsorships.
Cell C South Africa
When Cell C opened its doors in 2001, their primary goal was to focus on service and innovation. Obviously they could not compete with the logistics of the other 2 bigger cell phone network providers, so they decided to be more personal by tapping into the spirit of fairness.
Within a short period, they were able to attract 8.2 million subscribers. In 2010 they decided to spring clean with a dual band network, the first in South Africa. Their new network system expanded and covered almost 92% of the country’s population. Subscribers could enjoy a strong signal no matter where they were, indoors or outdoors. They have incorporated their services with popular websites like Facebook and Twitter. Given the impending digital divide, cell phones (and mobile technology) are the only way for many South Africans to connect to the internet. For commercial purposes, one can easily imagine a South African searching for property for sale in Soweto on a cell phone, and for knowledge based information services, one can imagine teachers using mobile technology as an aide in the classroom.
Cell C offers pre-paid and post-paid plans, and have now joined with the top brand Asian company, Red Bull. This is an energy drink that has successfully taken over the world, and in turn Red Bull is famous for sponsoring sports events and tournaments. With Cell C, they have launched their MOBILE service which conveniently allows subscribers access to sports, news, entertainment, and special events.