Where does your expired data go?

MTN Group President Sifiso Dabengwa says that the cost of smartphones has to come down to ensure mass market adoption. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)
MTN Group President Sifiso Dabengwa says that the cost of smartphones has to come down to ensure mass market adoption. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)

Cape Town - You may buy a 250MB or 500MB bundle and after a period of time it expires. But if you still have some data left, then why does it "disappear" after the time of expiry?

Unlike airtime, data bundles are specifically designed to be used within a specific period.

"When you buy a Coke, don't you finish it? You don't buy a coke and hold on to it forever right? You buy a Coke and you finish it," MTN Group President Sifiso Dabengwa told Fin24.

However, not everybody completely uses up their data cap at the date of expiry, and Dabengwa explained to Fin24 as to why operators make that data 'disappear'.

Mobile data costs have declined significantly from around R40 per megabyte price of 2004. But operators still find it difficult to plan effectively for truly unlimited data, Dabengwa explained.

"It's a combination of the two things, because obviously if you just hold on to that credit forever, from a service provider point of view makes it more difficult to plan and to decide how much to invest," said Dabengwa.

Data demand

What further complicates the process is that operators also have to buy data - typically from wholesale providers - and they have to calculate load on the network in order to ensure that they make accurate purchasing decisions.

"If I had a clearer view that it is finite - it's going to last a week or it's going to last a month - it just makes it much more efficient in terms of the overall process in the sense that you will buy what you need to eat.

"If I don't know when you're going to consume it, it makes it very difficult for my planning of the infrastructure, especially once you start getting into customer numbers above 10 to 15 million," Dabengwa said.

The rollout of high speed mobile broadband in SA is frustrated by a lack of policy implementation by the regulator. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)

According to data from Ericsson's Mobile Data Traffic Growth report for 2013 to 2019, the Sub-Saharan region's data consumption in 2013 was 37 500 terabytes (TB) and expected to reach 76 000TB in 2014.

The appetite in the region is huge and expected to grow at 65% to 2019 and beyond.

Put into perspective, mobile data in the region will jump to 380 000TB by the end of 2017, on its way to a mammoth 764 000TB by the end of 2019.

This further means that data restrictions could only be rescinded once there is sufficient spectrum to reduce the stress on mobile networks.


However, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has declined to make key spectrum available for mobile networks, despite government policy going back to at least 2008 that indicates the 800MHz band should be assigned for high speed networks.

Part of the reason that the regulator has been unable or unwilling to award spectrum may lie in the fact that the SABC, which broadcasts in the key band, has not migrated to digital terrestrial television.

Dabengwa, though, said that MTN is responsive to market conditions and would adjust its strategies accordingly.

"At the end of the day we have to remain competitive and relevant in the market, so we would have to continuously review what we put out in the market and be responsive to customer expectations."

Watch MTN Group President Sifiso Dabengwa explain why mobile data expires in this video.

- Follow Duncan on Twitter

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