Loss of airtime in South Africa may be caused by an Android issue

A “missing airtime” issue on Cell C, Vodacom, and MTN networks that MyBroadband recently discovered may be due to an issue with Android.

South African cellular subscribers often complain about the inexplicable exhaustion of their airtime or data balance and we regularly run tests to see if airtime is really running out.

The result of these tests can help indicate several things, including:

  • Whether mobile network operators comply with ICASA regulations on billing for data outside the bundle.
  • If there is a technical issue causing the airtime to run out when the device is connected to Wi-Fi or when the mobile data connection is disabled.
  • If the airtime is exhausted by illicit means, such as Rogue WASP.

In March 2020, we found that in two days our test devices consumed between 3MB and 9MB of background data in “slow motion”. These devices only had the default apps installed and new prepaid SIM cards were used to perform the tests.

This use of inactive background data was primarily assigned to Google Play services.

We used four identical devices for our tests, each with a prepaid SIM card from one of the country’s four major mobile network operators: Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, Cell C.

With Wi-Fi turned off on all of our test devices, we found that these small amounts of data caused the airtime to “disappear” from the MTN and Cell C test SIM cards.

MTN, Cell C and Vodacom explained at the time that this was expected behavior and complied with ICASA regulations on off-plan billing.

Airtime disappears with mobile data disabled

In October 2020, we repeated the experiment and found that airtime now “disappeared” on Vodacom and Cell C. Airtime no longer disappeared on the MTN network.

Repeat the test with mobile data turned off on the four devices gave extremely curious results: the Vodacom and Cell C SIMs were still losing airtime.

Vodacom’s response to our questions on this subject provided even more curious details.

Data depletion was no longer the result of Google services such as “”. Instead, the data was routed to resources owned by Amazon, HP, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, China Telecom, and MIT.

Data loss and LTE management on Android

When MyBroadand asked MTN about the disappearance of the airtime problem and if it was related to a legal case against Google in the United States, the network operator suggested that the problem could be related to the way our test devices handle LTE data sessions.

The disappearance of the airtime despite the deactivation of mobile data on the device is a reminder of a problem detected by MyBroadband on the MTN network in 2017, which the company attributed to an LTE session management issue at the time.

“This problem exists when it comes to LTE sessions,” explained Jacqui O’Sullivan, head of corporate affairs at MTN SA.

“The bearer session is not interrupted when deactivating mobile data on the handset, which means you may be charged for a small portion of the traffic.”

O’Sullivan said this needs to be addressed with a software update from the phone makers, which will end the support session when a subscriber turns off mobile data over LTE.

MTN has confirmed that to date the issue is resolved on Huawei devices.

“For LTE, this is how technology works,” O’Sullivan said. “It offers an ‘always connected’ experience. We had to implement the patches to mitigate this flaw until all phone makers applied a fix. “

It’s not immediately clear whether the same LTE session management bug that plagued MTN is what caused airtime to disappear in MyBroadband’s tests in October 2020.

The evidence that seems to contradict this possibility is the fact that Vodacom saw traffic destined for Amazon, HP, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, China Telecom, and MIT from our test device.

Google sued for the disappearance of airtime

The registry recently reported that Google faces lawsuit in the United States due to the large amounts of data that Android seems to consume in the background.

According to the complaint, they tested a new Samsung Galaxy S7 phone and found that it “sends and receives 8.88MB / day of data, with 94% of those communications occurring between Google and the device.”

The device has been signed into a Google account and left its default settings idle with all apps closed and no Wi-Fi connection.

It reportedly transferred data to Google about 16 times per hour, or about 389 times in 24 hours.

The registry noted that assuming only half of the data measured on the device is outgoing, that means the device is sending around 4.44MB per day from 130MB per month.

This corresponds to the upper limit of MyBroadband’s own measurements of 9 MB over two days.

The lawsuit aims to recover “the fair market value of the data quotas that Google has hijacked, as well as the value of the personal information that Google has thus acquired”.

Vodacom and Cell C respond

MyBroadband asked Vodacom and Cell C if the lawsuit against Google in the United States had anything to do with the disappearance of the airtime detected on their networks.

Vodacom said: “We are not aware of any relevance from Vodacom’s point of view.”

Cell C said they would continue to monitor the case as it unfolds.

“We cannot say if there is a direct relationship between the trial and the behavior of Android devices when connected to Wi-Fi,” said Cell C.

Google did not respond to requests for comment.

Now read: What to know before importing the Google Pixel 5

Loss of airtime in South Africa may be caused by an Android issue

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