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Power outages killing lights … and cellphone signals

Sustained loadshedding by Eskom is having a severe impact on South Africa’s mobile networks.

Rolling blackouts, euphemistically called loadshedding, are having a severe effect on cellular services – and therefore on consumers.

The country’s mobile network operators have spent billions of rand in backup power solutions for network stability and continuity, but customers are increasingly becoming frustrated when they experience a drop in network performance during higher levels of loadshedding. This is largely unavoidable when power generation capacity is reduced to Stage 4 and beyond.

Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub, speaking in his capacity as chairperson of the recently launched Association of Communications & Technology (ACT), says: “South Africa’s power crisis continues to add pressure to an already fragile economy. This at a time when conflict in Ukraine and the after-effects of a global health crisis has resulted in rapid increases in the cost of living.

“In a power-certain market, the massive amounts spent by network operators on the likes of batteries, generators and diesel would be channelled into programmes that deliver significantly better value to customers in the long term rather than simply keeping their networks running.”

These funds, says Joosub, could be better spent on initiatives like the digital divide, by accelerating rural coverage across the country and assisting customers that are battling to make ends meet because of rising inflation.

Vodacom Group is a founding member of the non-profit ACT, along with Cell C, Liquid Intelligent Technologies, MTN, Rain and Telkom.

To enhance network resilience during loadshedding, mobile operators have invested hugely into battery, generator and alternate backup power solutions at the tens of thousands of base station sites across South Africa.

With prolonged and increased loadshedding beyond Stage 4, however, these batteries do not have enough time (usually 12 to 18 hours) to fully recharge between outages. As a result, certain coverage areas are at risk of experiencing intermittent service when there is no power.

Many users find they cannot get a data signal, or the quality of voice calls is poor.

“When the power goes down, many people turn to their devices to study, to work or to be entertained,” says Joosub. “When they don’t get the level of service to which they are accustomed when there is no loadshedding, customers turn to call centres and social media in frustration.

“As an industry, we want our valued customers to know that we are doing our level best to maintain the exceptional network performance standards they expect from us. That said, it will require an extraordinary amount of money to fully mitigate even the likes of Stage 4 loadshedding, which ultimately would result in a substantial increase in the cost to communicate.”

In mitigating the effects of loadshedding for customers, network operators are having to ensure that there is enough fuel supply for static and mobile generators being used, not only at base station sites, but also at data centres and customer service centres. Network operators are also deploying 24-hour technician teams dedicated to monitoring and restoring power at sites and utilising logistics to secure mobile generators on site.

Tighter security and surveillance measures have been implemented by network operators to protect sites from both battery and generator theft and vandalism, which exacerbate any downtime issues. All these efforts incur increased operational costs for network operators.

“As connectivity is critical to our sustainable development as a nation, we need to work together as public and private sectors to find solutions to South Africa’s national power crisis. We also appreciate the progress made on the wheeling framework seeking to encourage independent energy generation to use existing distribution or transmission networks. Telcos are taking steps to participate in programmes where they will be credited with renewable energy they generate in their remote sites.”

Nomvuyiso Batyi, CEO of ACT, says: “The effects of loadshedding are far-reaching and will ultimately hinder any progress on inclusive digital transformation in the country and exacerbate the digital divide that exists.”

Batyi says that ACT has been engaging with a number of stakeholders, including the Department of Mineral Resource and Energy (DMRE), the Association of Municipal Electricity Utilities (AMEU), the regulator, NERSA, and Eskom, to find sustainable counter-measures to the impact of loadshedding.

ACT was launched in August this year to address non-competitive industry matters and other issues in the ICT industry.

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