Tuesday, December 25, 2007

South Africa - prepaid 3G HSDPA on Vodacom (and MTN)

I've been exploring the options for travelers or those that don't want to (or can't) get a contract with Vodacom. A few months ago I blogged about how we have some of the cheapest (and accessible) 3G in the world so I recently went through a process recently of getting a Vodacom 'data bundle'. Unfortunately it's not as straight forward as you may expect.

You can get Internet access on the 3G/HSDPA network using your pre-paid (any Vodacom pre-paid card costs around R5 at any Pick n Pay or Spar, etc.) or contract SIM card using any phone or PC/USB card. If you phone doesn't 'just work' then you can register at Vodacom4me and follow instructions to download the settings to your phone (for MTN just enter *123*13#).

At the cost of R2, standard 3g HSDPA (or GPRS) may be globally competitive but it isn't ideal if you plan to use more than 100 MB.

The Vodacom web page here (and btw, MTN is similar here) describes the "Prepaid and Top Up data bundles". The table shows (prepaid) prices from 19c per MB to R1,19 (depending on the bundle) as an alternative to R2,00 using a 'data bundle', although it doesn't say anything about how to get a data bundle. So what do you do?

As a contract customer one would ask ones 'service provider' (SP) who usually won't know but will get back to you and explain that there are a few forms that you need to complete and fax to them (although interestingly you can order a once off data bundle at any time as well as a monthly recurring one).

So for prepaid the SP did not know and suggested to buy a 'pre-paid data bundle'. So I assumed that one could buy a data bundle anywhere where one buys airtime. After looking at half a dozen places that sell airtime I learned it's not the case. After I bought what I thought was a R49 data bundle from Spar, I followed the instructions and found that it was an SMS bundle, so I ended up with 60 useless SMS's. I spent half and hour navigating the ridiculous Vodacom IVR and waiting for a real person who kindly explained that the only way to get a data bundle is to load normal airtime first and then convert that to a data bundle by dialing *111# and following the voice prompts. I did that and then easily added a 500MB bundle for R189.

Some observations:
- although advertised, you can't get less than a 500MB (pre-paid) data bundle on Vodacom (although you can on MTN).
- you have a maximum of one month in which to use the data bundle (ie. use it or lose it)
- if you want to use pre-paid on a HSDPA or 3G modem, you need to take out the card and put it into a phone every time you want to reload a data bundle
- it may be desirable to buy the exact amount of pre-paid airtime rather than 2 x R110 vouchers but more on this thread

This is still the best (lowest cost with maximum coverage) way for an international traveler to get Internet access in South Africa.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Article, although still expensive in SA, 3G is easy and portable.

Why not keep you blog hosting local in SA, go check out http://bundublog.co.za

1:42 pm  
Blogger aLan said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks for your post, I'm so proud to have received such a blatant example of shameless self-promotion.


The site claims to be hosted locally (in Africa) but its clearly hosted in the US, on a surprisingly slow connection.

5:23 pm  
Blogger nomiS said...

South Africa
Operator: Cell C
Service: Internet
- APN: internet
- username: guest
- password: guest
- DNS:,

Operator: MTN
Service: Internet
- APN: internet
- Pre-paid support: Yes
- username: guest
- password: guest
- DNS:
- SMTP: mail.mtn.co.za

Operator: Vodacom
Service: Internet
- APN: internet
- Pre-paid support: Yes
Service: MMS
- APN: mms.vodacom.net
- Pre-paid support: Yes
- WAP Gateway: Port: 9201
- MMSC: http://mmsc.vodacom4me.co.za/

Unlocking the 3G data cards is unfortunately not always possible and flashing the firmware doesn't *always* work although it does with some cards.
For £11 you can unlock a card using this chaps software: http://www.dc-unlocker.com/ and it does work.
Using the Option Mobility Connection Manager is the best way to configure any APN (Service Provider Access Point Name) so you're not locked to one provider by the connection software.

Drivers, firmware and AT modem commands for a number of the most popular 3G data cards are available here: http://www.xenya.si/sup/option/ with user:option and pass:fusion

Vodacom does not shape GPRS|EDGE|vanilla-3G|HSDPA, but you need to use the internetvpn or unrestricted APNs if you run into problems with the default NAT'ed internet APN.

At the moment (March 5 2008) it appears that MTN is the cheapest for GPRS data?

Something to be careful of, in the terms and conditions (smallest writing) it specifies that you cannot use 3G in South Africa for VOIP traffic - the network reserves the right to charge you R25 per MB of this data and can cancel your data bundle/connection if you're caught - Helkom continues to rape and pillage the economy.

10:58 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Alan and friends,

is any data package available to be cheap also capable of voice calls same time ? this way I can use my cell phone as modem and telephone same time.

Thank you for reply.


11:54 am  
Anonymous TiLO said...

Wow, Alan you are not only arrogant but also very stupid. if you ping the site mentioned by anonymous, you will find that the Ip address starting with 196... points to south africa.

just observing...

7:10 pm  
Blogger aLan said...

TiLo, thanks for posting a comment and for clearing up the locale of the blog hosting service (which I can see has returned to SA). Do you work for bundublog? Do you really think that they can compete favourably with Google?

8:26 am  
Blogger Johann Visagie said...

Hi Alan

As you know, I recently came home to South Africa for a visit, and decided to follow the advice you give here on prepaid 3G access (using my iPhone 3GS on Vodacom's network). I thought I'd recount my experiences here, just in case they're of use to someone:

The first hurdle I had to get across as a non-resident was RICA registration. In the event, this turned out to be a non-issue. I took along a credit card bill sent to my (German) address, and the Vodashop happily issued me with two registered SIM cards. So far so good…

Once my card was activated on the Vodacom network I found that cellular data settings had automatically been configured on my iPhone using the iphone.voda.com.za APN. However, I didn't actually have any data access. I messed around a bit and eventually discovered that changing the APN to "internet" worked for me! So far so good, again — I could now get internet access on my phone, but I still had a problem: mobile tethering did not work for me. In face, the "Internet Tethering" setting was completely absent from the network settings screen on my phone.

I'll now share a little secret with you and your readers: 082 155. This is Vodacom's data services helpline, and for whatever reason they do not seem to advertise it widely. A pity since, unlike the general-purpose helpline, it is staffed by people who actually know something about data services.

So (having found out about it), I called 082 155 and picked the "using your phone as a modem" option from the telemenu. The consultant told me that he had to enable the service for my account, and that it should work within 6 hours. As I hung up I received an SMS that the iphone.voda.com.za APN had been made available for me. I switched to it and, sure enough, I could now access the internet from my phone using this APN. Yet the Internet Tethering option was still absent from my phone.

Now, I know from having Googled around that one can force one's iPhone to display the tethering option by downloading a .mobileoconfig file from the likes of wan.to/iphone and iphone-notes.de/mobileconfig. However, I thought I'd give Vodacom one final chance to fix things through official channels. And so, when the 6 hours were up, I dialled 082 155 once more and this time chose the "iPhone" option off the voice menu. The consultant who helped me told me that I simply had to reset my iPhone's network settings (Settings → General → Reset → Reset Network Settings). I was of course extremely sceptical — we all know that "just reboot" is customer support's way of saying "We have no idea how to fix your problem." However, I followed his instructions, which caused my phone to do a cold boot. When it came back — lo and behold! — there was the Internet Tethering options just where it had always been.

3G access from both phone and laptop worked pretty much flawlessly for the rest of my visit.

Again, thanks for the information in your post — it was an excellent starting point.

4:01 pm  
Blogger DIBENE said...

Converting Vodacom Pre-Paid on your cellphone - What a mission to get this info. The procedure is as follow; Take SIM out of data card and put it into youe cellphone. Press *111# press dail button, press Answer, option 2, send, Answer, option 3, send, Answer, option 1, send, Answer, option 4, send, Answer, option 1, send, Answer, option 1, send, Exit

and your done.!! As I said what a mission to find this out and to follow the procedure.!!!! :-(

5:09 pm  

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