Telcos bear the brunt of sustained load-shedding

Staff Writer
By Staff Writer, ITWeb
Johannesburg, 21 Dec 2022

South African telcos are lamenting the adverse effects of the rolling blackouts, which they say are impacting network quality.

The industry says South Africa’s protracted and more frequent power cuts are having a significantly negative impact on the country’s mobile network operators.

It adds that although the industry has proactively spent billions of rand in back-up 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.

It explains that this is largely unavoidable when power generation capacity is reduced to stage four and beyond.

Speaking in his capacity as chairperson of the recently-launched Association of Communications and Technology (ACT), Shameel Joosub 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.

“For instance, these funds would have been better spent addressing the digital divide by accelerating rural coverage across the country and assisting customers that are battling to make ends meet because of the rising inflationary pressures.”

Joosub is also chief executive officer of Vodacom Group – a founding member of non-profit industry body ACT – alongside Cell C, Liquid Intelligent Technologies, MTN, Rain and Telkom.

Industry unity

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

The non-profit organisation’s aim is to work with government, regulators and stakeholders to manage the sector effectively while collectively driving digital inclusion.

ACT notes that to enhance network resilience during load-shedding, mobile operators have invested hugely into battery, generator and alternate back-up power solutions at the tens of thousands of base station sites across South Africa.

With prolonged and increased load-shedding beyond stage four, however, these batteries do not have enough time (usually 12 to 18 hours) to fully recharge between outages, it says.

As a result, it adds, certain coverage areas may be at risk of experiencing intermittent service when there is no power.

Joosub adds: “When the power goes down, many people turn to their devices to study, to work or to be entertained. When they don’t get the level of service to which they are accustomed when there is no load-shedding, customers then 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 four load-shedding, which ultimately would result in a substantial increase in the cost to communicate.”

Shameel Joosub, chairperson of the Association of Communications and Technology.
Shameel Joosub, chairperson of the Association of Communications and Technology.

In mitigating the effects of load-shedding 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 data centres and customer service centres, ACT adds.

It explains that 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.

In addition, 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,” adds Joosub.

Far-reaching effects

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

Batyi states that ACT “has been engaging with pertinent stakeholders including National Government through the National Department of Mineral Resource and Energy, the Association of Municipal Electricity Utilities, regulators such as NERSA and Eskom to ensure that South Africa finds sustainable counter measures to the impact of load-shedding experienced by all.”