In this latest analysis, Opensignal explores the substantial disparities in the mobile experience of our smartphone users between South Africa’s urban, suburban, and rural areas. However, these gaps narrowed between 2022 and 2023. We also looked at mobile network experience in South African provinces and observed significant differences between them in terms of Download Speed Experience or Time with no signal. Mobile connectivity remains essential for rural communities in South Africa, as there are still substantial proportions of mobile-only rural users in South Africa.
Opensignal used the DEGURBA methodology (Degree of Urbanization), developed by the European Commission and OECD, to classify South Africa’s territory into rural, towns and suburbs — which we refer to as suburban — and urban areas (cities), depending on the population density. We compared differences in average overall download and upload speeds between different area types and how they changed between 2022 and 2023.
In 2023, our smartphone users in South Africa see 14.4% slower Download Speed Experience and 29.2% slower Upload Speed Experience in rural areas than in urban ones. The rural-urban gap slightly narrowed compared to 2022, where average download speeds in rural areas were 15.9% slower than in the cities — but it widened for average upload speeds, going from 26.2% in 2022 to 29.2% in 2023. The disparity between suburban and urban areas of South Africa remained similar in 2022 and 2023 for Download Speed Experience — with our users in the former areas seeing 8.3% and 8.4% slower download speeds than in the cities, respectively.
We observed increases in Download Speed Experience across all three area types between 2022 and 2023 — from 30.6% for both cities and towns to 32.9% in the urban areas. The year-on-year growth is driven partly by the accelerated 5G roll-outs in South Africa as well as Cell C completing its migration to MTN and Vodacom networks. This move gives Cell C’s subscribers access to better network infrastructure, improving the national overall scores.
Network availability is also critical to understanding users’ mobile network experience, especially in rural areas. Looking at the time our South African users spend connected to 4G or 5G services, these scores are much lower in rural areas compared to towns and cities. However, rural areas are catching up, as the difference between rural areas and cities has decreased from 8.5 to 6.6 percentage points between 2022 and 2023.
All areas observed substantial improvements in the time our smartphone users spend connected to 4G or 5G — rising by 7.3 percentage points for rural areas and by 5.2 and 5.4 percentage points for suburban and urban areas, respectively. This means that access to newer mobile generations and better technologies is improving in South Africa and users’ dependence on older 3G networks is decreasing — especially in rural areas. In 2022, our users in these areas spent 15.9% of their time connected to 3G services — but this value dropped to 10.8% in 2023. In towns, time on 3G went down from 12.3% in 2022 to 8.6% in 2023, and in cities — from 11.3% to 7.1%, respectively. The South African government intends to switch off the country’s 2G and 3G networks by March 2025, so we are likely to see further increases in time on 4G/5G in the coming years.
We see improvements in signal availability in South Africa — both in rural areas and their suburban and urban counterparts. Time with no signal declined from 3.2% in 2022 to 2.1% in 2023 in rural areas — although it is still around twice as high as in the cities. Our users in towns and suburbs have also seen considerably less time with no signal in 2023 compared to 2022. While there was a gap of 0.4 percentage points between South African suburban and urban areas in 2022 — it closed in 2023, as we recorded identical results of 1.1% in both area types.
Comparing rural areas across South African provinces, we can observe major differences between them. Our users in the rural parts of the Western Cape, Gauteng, North West, and Free State all see average download speeds above 30Mbps. Meanwhile, Limpopo lags behind other provinces, with a score of 18.3Mbps.
Looking at time with no signal across the rural parts of South African provinces — our users in Gauteng, Free State, and North West spend the least time with no signal, with statistically tied scores of 1.0-1.6%. Meanwhile, rural users in the Northern Cape observe the highest proportion of time with no signal, at 5.6%. At a national level, our rural smartphone users in South Africa spend nearly twice as much time with no signal (2.1%) as those in suburban or urban areas (1.1%). These ratios differ greatly between South African provinces. While our users in Gauteng — the home province of Johannesburg and Pretoria — spend the same proportion of time with no signal in rural areas and cities (1%), those in Free State’s rural areas spend 5.4 times more time with no signal compared to their urban counterparts (0.3%).
Fast and reliable rural mobile connectivity is especially important for those users who don’t have a viable and affordable fixed broadband alternative available locally. Opensignal has previously investigated the scale of mobile-only users across African markets, including South Africa. We have replicated this analysis for the rural parts of South African provinces and segmented our smartphone users by the amount of time they spend connected to Wi-Fi, to quantify the proportions of “mobile-only” users — those who never connect to Wi-Fi services and rely solely on mobile connectivity for data transmission.
Our data demonstrates major disparities between rural parts of South African provinces. The rural areas of North West see the highest share of mobile-only smartphone users in South Africa— almost 23%, followed by Free States’s 17% and Mpumalanga’s 16.9%. Western Cape is the only province in South Africa where the proportion of mobile-only rural users is below 10%.
Opensignal also analyzed the percentage of rural users in these provinces who connect to Wi-Fi services very sporadically — more than 0% and up to 10% of the time — which means they heavily rely on mobile service for the majority of their time. Northern Cape has the highest share of such users — 12.6%.
These figures reveal a strong reliance on mobile services to connect to the Internet among significant proportions of rural users in South Africa. According to World Bank statistics, 68% of South Africans live in urban areas, which means a significant part of the population inhabits less densely populated areas. For these people, subscribing to both mobile and fixed services may be either unaffordable or impossible, with no fixed broadband infrastructure available locally, due to high costs of deployment and low anticipated return on investment. This means mobile connectivity is still a key technology to access the Internet for many South African rural users for work, education, or entertainment. Community-owned networks are one of the potential solutions to advance rural connectivity in South Africa. However, the country’s ongoing struggles with load shedding, which especially affects rural communities, could potentially jeopardize these efforts, along with operators’ own investment in rural infrastructure.
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