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Sentech pays hefty price to keep sites operational

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 28 Mar 2023

Sentech witnessed a steep rise in diesel costs between 2022 and 2023, spending more than R2 million per month to keep some sites operational during rolling blackouts.

This information came to light during Sentech’s presentation before the Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) on the impact of load-shedding.

Yesterday, ICASA hosted a virtual consultation workshop that saw a number of associations and umbrella bodies − including Sentech, National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), Internet Service Providers’ Association, South African Communications Forum, and Association of Communications and Technology − detail howpower supply instability is impacting their operations.

During the presentation, Sentech CEO Mlamli Booi noted diesel costs are not affordable; however, the signal distributor has a responsibility to its customers.

“We’ve had to find means and ways in which we can provide backup power.”

Sentech has 350 sites nationwide that it must maintain for services to the broadcasting industry. The signal distributor relies on Eskom and municipalities to provide power to its sites, according to Booi.

He revealed Sentech has increased the availability of power to the sites without shifting costs to customers. The 133 sites that are platinum, gold and silver site categories, in terms of service-level agreements, have diesel backup generators.

However, this has resulted in increased operation costs, which he stated, can’t be passed on to clients.

“For all the major sites, we’ve had to use diesel backup generators to supply to these sites. Since the beginning of load-shedding, we’ve begun to upgrade some of our sites by providing solar-generated power, to reduce the impact of load-shedding.”

Booi revealed Sentech’s head office sometimes has to run its generator more than three times a day. This, he stated, is to ensure signal coverage to all sites nationally.

Electricity shortages continue to plague SA, with the country experiencing worsening and record levels of load-shedding. Last year saw 207 days of rolling blackouts, compared to 75 days in 2021.

Booi noted that every organisation has been thrown into a state of crisis as result of the rolling blackouts.

Whatever resources companies have put in place, in terms of planning for operational and business maintenance, those have been disrupted by the fact that the energy supply has been affected and impacted quite negatively, he added.

“We design our networks with the view that there will be stable power available to provide services to our customers, which is the broadcasting industry. Load-shedding has really disrupted that somehow. It is not something that has happened overnight, it has worsened over time.”

ICASA invited stakeholders, licensees and public entities from the electronic communications, broadcasting and postal services sectors to engage on some of the constraints they face as service providers under the current electricity climate.

They were also tasked with identifying potential mitigation measures that lie within the authority’s scope.

Acting chairperson Dr Charley Lewis explained the consultation is the first ICASA plans to host, in relation to the national state of disaster in response to the ongoing electricity crisis.

Yesterday’s consultation process will be followed by a formal notice and comment procedure with a short turnaround time, he stated.

“There will be follow-up to this particular process…there was a policy direction emanating from the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, and that policy direction is awaited and expected from the minister of communications and digital technologies. When that policy direction comes, it will feed into the process.”

Commenting on relief measures, the Sentech CEO suggested the regulator relaxes or relooks the availability of quality of service.

“This is something that maybe the regulator can explore, and we don’t take that lightly because we always want to provide 99.8% availability of service for our customers.”

Booi also proposed relooking the licence fees to help mitigate the elevated cost of operation. “As an ICT licence operator, we pay licence fees like all the other telcos based on our revenue.

“We would appeal to the regulator to relook the licence fees that we pay as operators. That 2% that you have been looking at increasing, I would like you to look at it so that it can be a rebate to enable us to provide backup power during this crisis period.

“We will continue to use renewables but that cannot be sufficient at this point in time. We cannot afford to cover all the 350 sites with backup power. We will continue with the ones that we have already provided with diesel generators.”

Backing up the backup

Meanwhile, the NAB, of which Sentech is a member, presented several high-level issues its members raised in the recent past, stressing it is by no means all the issues it would like to raise.

NAB deputy chairperson Nick Grubb highlighted the broadcast industry faces two main issues: a crisis of cost and signal distribution.

He explained broadcasters are at the limit of their infrastructure. “Most broadcasters – radio and television – have provided over the years a level of uninterrupted power supply and backup generation within their facilities. Those are increasingly becoming the primary source of power and not the secondary source power.

“What’s happening is that backup generation costs are escalating. For example, Jacaranda FM spends an excess of R40 000 a month on diesel backup generation currently.

“If we were to extrapolate that across the broadcasting industry – on a rough calculation – it’s over a R1 million a month the radio industry is spending just on diesel, to keep stations running.

“In the television sector, it’ll be even more expensive because their operations are considerably more power-hungry.”

He added the costs are escalating exponentially. “The backup systems require further investment because there’s a risk that the backup systems themselves require backup, and that was never the intention when many of the facilities were originally designed.”

NAB also called for the relaxation of regulation during the national state of disaster, as a result of the energy crisis.