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Power blackouts knock SA’s mobile network performance

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 20 Sept 2022

Rolling power blackouts are having a significant impact on South African operators’ mobile network performance.

This is according to US-based broadband testing diagnostics firm Ookla’s mobile performance speed test, which explores mobile performance in select countries across Sub-Saharan Africa.

“We examine how four operator groups’ – Airtel, Orange, MTN and Vodacom – mobile performance compared against each other during Q2 2022 across 10 countries,” says Sylwia Kechiche, Ookla principal analyst.

The firm says load-shedding is having a massive impact on South Africa’s mobile performance.

Over the past weeks, the country has suffered crippling bouts of load-shedding, as power utility Eskom struggles to keep the lights on.

The embattled power utility escalated load-shedding to stage six over the weekend, and announced yesterday that it may downgrade it to stage five on Tuesday following a return to service of some generation units.

Left hanging

Amid the crisis, consumers reported not having signal and access to mobile internet.

Kechiche comments it is important to note that mobile performance is impacted by a number of factors, including underlying infrastructure, such as access to fibre backhaul and reliable power supply, spectrum availability, as well as end-user devices, to name a few.

“Case in point is the fact that, despite being the regional leaders when it comes to mobile performance, South African operators faced issues related to infrastructure reliability and availability over the past three months. Operating conditions in SA were affected by increased incidents of rolling power outages and there are no signs of respite.”

Ookla says it has seen these outages reflected on Downdetector, which is the world’s most popular platform for user-reported service status information.

“During Q2 2022, users reported 46 810 incidents for Vodacom and 34 882 problems for MTN. There were two top issues reported – no signal and no mobile internet. Lack of signal accounted for the majority (46%) of Vodacom’s reported outages, followed by inability to access mobile internet (36%).

“This was reversed for MTN – the majority of issues were related to mobile internet (43%), followed by no signal (40%). Noteworthy is the fact that there were reports of total blackouts – 7% for Vodacom and 5% for MTN.”

Kechiche points out that Vodacom commented in its results for the quarter ended 30 June that it had already spent R1.7 billion on batteries and generators to offset the impact of load-shedding, with a further R500 million allocated to battery purchases.

“Vodacom also continues to optimise site utilisation by using IoT.nxt technology to reduce the amount of energy consumption per site, but also piloting wind power and solar projects. Its competitor, MTN, stated in its interim results report that it rolled out a comprehensive network resilience plan, including additional batteries, generators and enhanced security features.”

Fastest speeds

In the latest report, Ookla focuses its analysis on Airtel, Orange, MTN and Vodacom, which command the majority (62%) of Sub-Saharan Africa mobile subscriptions.

“We also compare mobile performance on modern chipsets across 10 countries. Those 10 countries account for 59% of the region’s connections, including Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Africa, Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and Nigeria,” says Kechiche.

Ookla’s Speedtest Intelligence data shows MTN SA delivered the fastest median download speeds across analysed operators, at 65.95Mbps in Q2 2022.

However, it says Vodacom in Johannesburg was the fastest operator considering speeds across top cities, reaching 81.36Mbps median download speed in Q2 2022.

In SA, it adds, MTN outperformed Vodacom in terms of median mobile speeds during Q2 2022.

Comparing Airtel and MTN performance across the three countries they operate in, Airtel took the top spot in Nigeria, both in terms of median download and upload speed in Q2 2022, while there were no winners in Uganda and Rwanda, says Ookla.

It notes that such was the case in Botswana too, where there was no winner between Mascom and Orange.

In Côte d’Ivoire, it says, MTN took the market lead versus Orange in Q2 2022, whereas in Guinea, the situation was reversed and Orange took the top spot.

Vodacom subsidiary Safaricom won the accolade in Kenya versus Airtel; in Tanzania there was no clear winner as Vodacom won the download speed and Airtel the upload.

In the DRC, which is host to three of the operator groups, there was no winner overall, although Orange was the top player in terms of download speeds.

Ookla points out that in SA, Vodacom ended June with 45.1 million subscriptions, equivalent to 41% market share.

MTN is the second largest player with 35.3 million connections, and had a net addition of almost 837 000 in the quarter.

MTN noted in its results: “The overall growth in the base was particularly encouraging given the significant ramp-up in load-shedding, which impacts systems and typically constrains new customer acquisitions.”

“The South African market might see a consolidation if the proposed acquisition of Telkom by MTN gets the green light. This will change the market dynamics, as MTN will become the number one player by number of connections,” Kechiche says.

“In terms of mobile performance, MTN had better median download and upload speeds, while Vodacom led on 4G availability.”