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Ask Arthur: Why does data die along with power?

A reader wants to know why cellphone data signals deteriorate during load shedding. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK has a few answers.

Q: Why is my data signal weaker when there is load shedding?

A: In the early years of load shedding, we did not notice much difference in our mobile signals when the power went out. The reason is that the mobile network operators were able to keep most towers powered up by means of generators and large batteries. Most importantly, the schedules for shedding meant that there was enough time between power outages to recharge the batteries that would kick in again the next time power went.

Two things have changed more recently. Firstly, the batteries powering the towers are massive, and make a very attractive target for thieves, who find a ready market among consumers looking for a cheap way of backing up their own power. Anyone buying these batteries is complicit in crime, but that does not stop them making the transaction. The result is that the operators have to replace the batteries at very high cost or rely on generators powered by fuel: a noisy, messy and expensive approach.

Where batteries remain in place, these often cannot recharge fully in between the increasingly frequent bouts of load shedding. This means that, for example, in the second round of load shedding on a given day, the tower is likely to go dark. That means you lose your data signal, and voice signals deteriorate as they have to be received from more distant cellphone towers.

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