What if the emperor had no spectrum?

Mobile Tower

Mobile Tower

I’ve been more than a bit annoyed at how African mobile giant Vodacom’s network quality has degraded in South Africa in the last few weeks. The last few months have been pretty bad, but the last few weeks have been painful. Dropped calls, calls taking forever to connect, periods of silence and noise in the call, iMessages sent as SMS after a few retries. You get the idea.

Its Twitter support people have been giving me answers like: “As per the feedback in the SR logged to Networks, our Network Engineers are still busy with upgrades in your area” (in office hours? for a whole week? WTF?) or “our Network team will contact you as soon as any updates is available” (yes, that was a cut and paste). Muppets.

What I find frustrating is that they seem to be very happy for me to keep paying for a degraded service and not even notifying me that their service is going to be degraded for weeks.

Scope of the problem

So, I start asking around… Charl: “MTN [Vodacom’s main competitor in the country] as well… Stellenbosch has a massive reception issue.” Dave: “Been to JHB [Johannesburg] of late Joe? There were times I had to drive to find a Vodacom signal so Maps could update and tell me where I was supposed to be going. We’ve got spoilt with near ubiquitous coverage I suppose.” Ben: “Have you had the unfortunate experience of working in Technopark [a technology buisiness park in Stellenbosch]? This morning a developer had to phone back four times before we could complete a two-minute conversation. You might as well use empty cans and really long pieces of string.”

Seems it’s not just me. Ask any of your friends if they think their service has improved in the last six months?


What if the emperor had no spectrum?

What if we’ve all believed that GSM networks “just work” — and we were wrong? What if people built businesses on the assumption that GSM networks will always be up and offer good quality service? Car tracking, payment systems, emergency services, mobile health.

It’s a nice warm bubble and we’ve been very lucky with good service over the last few years, but one has to ponder the scenario where it becomes way less dependable.


  • Smartphones – The perfect storm. “Cisco’s Visual Network Index anticipates mobile data traffic to increase 39 times globally between 2009 and 2014.” — according to Mobile Data Demand by the Numbers. “The projected 2012 to 2017 global mobile data traffic increase represents a compound annual growth rate of 66 percent.”
  • Cost and load. The cheaper the service gets, the more load on the network. We’ve been seeing and extended price war for the last year — on voice and data (see Vodacom slashes prepaid call rates).
  • Should the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) not be regulating the quality of our service? Ah HA HA HA HA HA! No, unlike almost every single other country in the world, including most in Africa, Icasa does not independently measure cellphone quality, it relies on the MNOs to self-report. What could possibly go wrong?
  • Will LTE save us? Sure, they are busy re-farming spectrum for LTE. More efficient for data – once more than 100 people have working LTE devices, but it’s not helping with voice call load. In the short term this LTE “upgrade” might be a big part of my problem. Refarming spectrum is compromising voice networks.
  • More spectrum? I have a feeling the process of refarming spectrum for LTE is a way of forcing government to give the existing MNOs more spectrum. Could work. Could take a long time and we’ll be stuck with poor service. It’s government, who knows?


What now?

Make sure your business model does not depend on good quality GSM network services.

Invest in Wi-Fi. About 70% of smartphone data traffic already travels via Wi-Fi and not mobile networks.

..and in my case, get more annoyed for a week or so while waiting for Vodacom to give me any form of sensible answer to my complaints.. then make peace with the idea that things are not going to get any better soon.

Now you know.


Some extra notes:

  • After some research, as suspected, Vodacom is using voice spectrum for LTE — voice spectrum which was probably already pretty congested and needed. This is the root cause of my pain — and it has been unable to tell me this in the weeks I’ve been asking it to sort out the quality of my calls. I think you’ll agree this is pretty evil.
  • GSM Signal maps: gr8signal.co.za and opensignal.com
  • “Telcos are billing companies with a small network attached” — JP
  • Hiding the truth from SA consumers.
  • Fellow Vodacom customers — I personally think you should be mad as hell and start complaining in every public forum you can.
  • Let’s try and picture the conversation between Vodacom marketing and Vodacom networks…

    Marketing: We need to be first to launch LTE. Networks: We don’t have enough spectrum. Marketing: We need to support the iPhone 5 and my ten friends who have them. Networks: We’ll be the first to piss off most of our customers by neglecting basic voice services. Marketing: Have you seen my new iPhone 5?

  • Vodacom increases pre-paid data bundle price with 335%. Might be that Vodacom and MTN are a bit screwed with the current spectrum allocations. Cell C and 8ta have much better spectrum for data services.
  • The solution… seems to be to move to Cell C, oh and pay less. Let’s ponder that for a second. Now there’s the legal question — must a customer still pay to get out of a contract when Vodacom makes a decision to degrade the service (excluding hardware costs obviously)?
  • The @Vodacom Twitter account person/people did ask for my number two days before I published this post. Before I wrote this I reminded them to please phone me. No phone call yet. Case study in failure.

This article by Joe Botha originally appeared on Swimgeek and is republished with permission.

Image: smith (via Flickr)



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