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Telcos get electricity minister up to speed on sector woes

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 14 Mar 2023

New electricity minister Dr Kgosientso Ramokgopa has committed to working with local telecoms operators to help mitigate the impact of load-shedding on SA’s telecoms sector.

This emerged after a meeting took place between the newly-appointed minister in the presidency responsible for electricity, and representatives from the Association of Communications and Technology, chaired by Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub.

The engagement, took place last Thursday with telecoms industry representatives from Cell C, Telkom, MTN, Vodacom and Liquid Intelligent Technologies, among other stakeholders.

It sought to bring the needs of the telco industry to the minster’s attention, as it relates to the protection of their assets and efficiency of their operations, as the country continues to grapple with worsening load-shedding.

The engagement further explored how network operators can help resolve the issue of power generation and contribute to the national power grid.

South African mobile operators have been vocal about the adverse effects of the rolling blackouts, which they say are harming network quality and infrastructure across the country.

Network towers and base stations often shut down during power cuts, resulting in poor connectivity or even complete network outages, which disrupts phone calls and internet connectivity.

Although the industry has spent billions on backup power solutions to provide network stability and continuity, related challenges become largely unavoidable when load-shedding is at stage four and beyond – leaving customers frustrated.

MTN chief of corporate affairs Jacqui O’Sullivan tells ITWeb the engagement with the minister was a “success”.

“The purpose of the engagement with the newly-appointed minister of electricity was to discuss challenges relating to load-shedding and how mobile network operators can work together with government to mitigate the impact of load-shedding, which has a severe impact on our efforts to provide quality network to our citizens.

“We hope to continue engaging with the ministry and other relevant stakeholders on issues affecting SA. At MTN, our focus right now is on keeping our customers connected to their work, friends and family, while we all navigate these complicated times.”

Jacqui O’Sullivan, MTN chief of corporate affairs.
Jacqui O’Sullivan, MTN chief of corporate affairs.

Mobile network operators have also been hit by network infrastructure vandalism and battery theft. Telcos have spent millions on installation and replacement of stolen batteries.

In its financial results for the year ended 31 December, MTN noted load-shedding had wiped R695 million off its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation.

In September, the telco announced plans to power its Johannesburg headquarters with solar energy. The operator is also currently deploying more backup batteries on its sites across the country.

“Despite having placed thousands of batteries at our sites across the country, the efficacy of those batteries reduces once we pass stage four load-shedding. MTN upgraded its battery backup solutions on over 80% of the sites in 2022,” adds O’Sullivan.

Lunga Siyo, Telkom CEO for Consumer and Small Business, says following the meeting, the industry hopes to work more collaboratively with the electricity department in providing support for the broader plan to restore energy in SA.

“The industry shared its concerns around the impact of load-shedding on network availability and the subsequent poor connectivity our customers experience.

“Other issues raised with the minister included the battery theft challenge we are all facing, and the rising costs of keeping the network live during prolonged load-shedding impacting the sustainability of our businesses.

“We are encouraged the minister acknowledges the crucial role the communication sector plays in the economy of the country and his willingness to engage the sector on these issues. We look forward to working with the ministry,” stated Siyo.

A Vodacom spokesperson tells ITWeb: “In the normal course of business, we engage with relevant stakeholders to discuss issues that are critical to our business. However, the nature of these discussions is private, and as such, we are not at liberty to discuss in public.”

Cell C declined to comment on the engagement.

Lunga Siyo, Telkom CEO for Consumer and Small Business.
Lunga Siyo, Telkom CEO for Consumer and Small Business.