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Telcos scramble to keep SA connected amid load-shedding

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 21 Sept 2022

South African mobile operators are running around the clock to ensure connectivity remains stable amid the massive power blackouts the country is experiencing.

The telcos say they are also forking out billions of rands to mitigate the chaos caused by load-shedding.

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 this week that it would downgrade it to stage five on Tuesday following a return to service of some generation units.

In a statement on Tuesday, the state-owned company said load-shedding will continue to be implemented at stage five, with the possibility of reducing one stage by Thursday.

According to Eskom, since Monday afternoon, four generation units at four power stations were taken offline for emergency repairs.

These are a generating unit each at Arnot, Lethabo, Kendal and Majuba power stations.

With no end in sight for the rolling blackouts, local mobile operators say they have put in place costly contingency measures to avoid a connectivity outage.

Alternative plans

Says a Vodacom spokesperson in a statement: “Vodacom is working hard to keep its customers connected during protracted periods of national power outages.

“While some customers may experience issues connecting to the network due to load-shedding, Vodacom is proactively doing all we can to mitigate the effects of widespread load-shedding.”

According to the operator, this includes deploying backup power solutions, such as generators, to as many sites across the country as possible.

“Vodacom has spent circa R2 billion on batteries alone over the past two years, to enhance power resilience to our base stations during load-shedding,” the spokesperson says.

However, the company says stage six load-shedding means more frequent and protracted power outages, which impacts the ability of batteries to recharge fully.

“This means certain coverage areas around the country may only be able to provide intermittent service to customers at times. We would like to appeal to customers to follow Eskom’s load-shedding schedules to keep planning ahead and we apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

Draining experience

As load-shedding escalates across the country, MTN South Africa also says it is working around the clock to protect customers’ connectivity, with “an aggressive rollout of batteries, generators and alternate power supplies”.

MTN’s priority is keeping its customers connected and so it is exploring practical and innovative solutions to the power crisis, it notes.

Michele Gamberini, chief technology and information officer at MTN SA, concurs that increased load-shedding is a challenge for battery recharging.

“Despite us having placed thousands of batteries at our sites across the country, the efficacy of those batteries greatly reduces once we pass stage four load-shedding.”

Gamberini says MTN has upgraded its battery backup solutions on over 70% of the sites already this year and is currently deploying more additional batteries.

However, MTN says it is still faced with the challenge that the current outage schedule does not allow enough time for batteries to charge.

It explains that battery backup systems generally take 12 to 18 hours to recharge, while batteries have a capacity of about six to 12 hours, depending on the site category.

“Consistent outages, therefore, have a direct impact on the performance of the batteries, while consistent theft of the batteries themselves means replacements need to be installed,” Gamberini says.

In addition to the battery rollout, MTN says it has deployed over 2 000 generators to counter the impact of stage four (and higher) load-shedding.

MTN says the constant pressure of stage four and five power outages requires 24-hour monitoring, so it has put power contingencies in place in all provinces. These include:

  • The establishment of “war rooms” per region with dedicated staff and network partners, focused on restoring major transmission infrastructure and base stations, in the face of severe load-shedding.
  • The deployment of additional emergency generators and an optimisation of the existing fleet of MTN mobile generators.
  • The withdrawal of field maintenance teams, to allow them to be redeployed to exclusively focus on site restorations.
  • The delivery of fuel to all critical facilities, to ensure all MTN data centres remain operational. MTN says it does not anticipate any disruptions to any of these facilities.

“To mitigate the risks, we have embarked on several emergency initiatives to ensure higher network resilience, despite the obstacles,” says the firm.

“There is no doubt these are challenging times for South Africans. Our focus at MTN is to keep delivering consistent and stable connectivity for all our customers in support of the growth and development of our nation.”

Unbearable cost impact

Meanwhile, Telkom notes it also has measures in place to ensure network stability during load-shedding. “On the whole, these work well, and we work around the clock to ensure minimal disruption for our customers.

“However, the sustained levels of higher stages of load-shedding currently being experienced significantly impact our costs of doing business, with recharge cycles for alternative power sources being significantly lower and operating costs soaring on inputs such as diesel and the additional man hours to keep sites operational.”

According to Telkom, the risk of depleting battery backup remains, the longer SA is in stage five and six load-shedding. If the batteries do not get enough time to recharge for the next cycle, customers will experience poor connectivity.

It points out that access to fibre within a home does require an uninterrupted electrical connection, meaning customers will not be able to access their fibre lines during load-shedding unless the home is enabled with backup or alternative power solutions.