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MTN CEO on load-shedding: ‘We can’t put lipstick on a gorilla’

Samuel Mungadze
By Samuel Mungadze, Africa editor
Johannesburg, 23 Jan 2023
Ralph Mupita, MTN Group CEO.
Ralph Mupita, MTN Group CEO.

MTN Group CEO Ralph Mupita has bemoaned the incessant power blackouts, saying the telco is struggling to maintain its network because of load-shedding.

Mupita, who was speaking last week on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, said he will not put “lipstick on a gorilla on this [load-shedding] matter”.

His comments come as South Africa experiences a worsening energy crisis, with power utility Eskom implementing stage six load-shedding over the past weeks.

The power crisis forced president Cyril Ramaphosa to cancel his WEF trip to Davos last week, as he tried to find a solution to end load-shedding.

Said Mupita in an interview with The Nielsen Network: “In a normal situation, we expect our networks to be 99.75% available at all times, everywhere − whether you’re in the Eastern Cape, Limpopo or wherever − but we are battling today at stage six, and we are sub-90%.”

The power utility yesterday announced it is exploring the possibility of permanently implementing power cuts over the next two years, in order to give power stations the “headroom” to address maintenance issues.

Protracted and more frequent power cuts are having a significantly negative impact on mobile network operators.

The industry has spent billions of rand on backup power solutions for network stability and continuity. Customers are increasingly becoming frustrated when they experience a drop in network performance during higher levels of load-shedding.

In his interview, Mupita also shared how MTN is withstanding multiple pressures in its markets.

“We are relatively more resilient as a sector; the demand for telecoms continues, structurally, to be on the growth cycle. We still see service revenue growth. Smartphone penetration in our markets is about 56%, so there is a lot of our customers who are not accessing the internet, and a lot more of the markets we operate in are realising that part of the way out of the challenges is to build a digital economy,” he said.

“We are not completely unaffected; inflation is impacting us. We have capital discipline; we think about which decisions or opportunities deserve capital and which ones we simply do not allocate capital to. We are still growth-oriented; we are pushing for growth.”

Space exploration

Meanwhile, Africa's largest mobile phone network operator MTN is eyeing space technologies in a bid to provide uninterrupted connectivity in its markets.

Mupita noted space is an area “we are watching very closely as MTN. It’s early days, but I think the future of telecoms is always on the network, leveraging the assets, subsea, terrestrial and space.

“I am pushing my team to say in four to five years, how communication should be. Communication should always be on; there should never be instances where you don’t have connectivity.

“I think the next four to five years will be interesting to see how the interaction of subsea cables, terrestrial networks, space and low earth orbit satellites sit together, and are arranged to give people a completely uninterrupted experience.”

Mupita’s comments come as the space economy is booming, according to WEF, which says the deployment of new space infrastructure has brought benefits to industries, including meteorology, energy and telecoms.

In SA, the use of space technologies is under the spotlight, as policymakers, regulators and the telecoms industry are in agreement that the technology can be catalyst to drive SA’s developmental agenda.