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MNOs deploy additional resources as load-shedding bites

Read time 7min 10sec

Mobile operators are investing in more infrastructure to mitigate the effects of the rolling blackouts currently being implemented by embattled power utility Eskom.

The infrastructure includes batteries, generators and diesel, which keep the lights on at base stations and enable cellular telephone systems to operate.

To exacerbate the situation, mobile network operators (MNOs) are crying foul that when there is load-shedding, criminal syndicates and vandals also take advantage of the darkness to target the base stations.

Bankrupt Eskom, which supplies over 90% of SA’s electricity needs, is struggling to keep the lights on mostly because of poor maintenance of power plants.

Yesterday, Eskom issued a statement apologising after briefly implementing stage six load-shedding for the first time in the country.

“This afternoon (yesterday), as generating unit breakdowns remained high, the power supply to the incline conveyors feeding coal to the silos at Medupi Power Station failed, further contributing to the shortage in capacity.”

The debt-ridden state-owned enterprise said the technical teams worked around the clock and have resumed coal handling operations at Medupi Power Station.

As a result, the power utility said, stage six rotational load-shedding was stopped at 10pm last night.

Eskom resumed stage four load-shedding from 10pm yesterday, which will continue until 11pm tonight.

“Eskom unreservedly apologises to all South Africans for the inconvenience during this difficult period. In addition, we remain grateful to large power users for their invaluable assistance offered today,” said Jabu Mabuza, Eskom’s acting group chief executive and interim executive chairman.

President Cyril Ramaphosa also issued a statement saying the anger and frustration that load-shedding has caused is understandable.

Significant threats

Following the announcement of stage six load-shedding, mobile operator MTN says despite significant investments in battery backup systems and generators, MTN’s mobile sites continue to face significant threats due to Eskom’s ongoing load-shedding and, in particular, the introduction of stage six load-shedding.

It notes the majority of MTN’s sites have been equipped with battery backup systems to ensure there is enough power on-site to run the systems for several hours when local power goes down.

However, it laments that the frequency of load-shedding is resulting in batteries not having enough time to recharge.

“These batteries generally have a capacity of six to 12 hours, depending on the site category, and require 12 to 18 hours to recharge, which, in stage three and four load-shedding, is simply not happening. This situation is exacerbated with the introduction of stage six load-shedding,” says Jacqui O’Sullivan, executive for corporate affairs at MTN SA.

MTN says the constant outages are starting to have a direct impact on the performance of the batteries, and it fears if stage six outages continue, the batteries’ integrity will be compromised because of the insufficient time to recharge and due to the excessive drain on the batteries.

Excluding the amount spent on new batteries for new cellphone sites, MTN spent around R300 million in 2018 on batteries for existing sites, the company says. In addition to the batteries, MTN has 1 800 generators currently in use.

According to MTN, another significant additional cost of the load-shedding is the extra on-site security that is needed to protect the batteries, generators and general site equipment from thieves and vandals.

It explains that network operators across the country have been battling sophisticated syndicates that have been stealing batteries daily. However, it adds, load-shedding is seeing entire neighbourhoods cloaked in darkness at predictable times, which is offering criminals greater cover for their thieving.

The extent of the outages has placed a significant strain on MTN’s overall network resources, and teams have had to be reassigned from growth projects to emergency management of sites due to the load-shedding.

MTN says it is currently sourcing additional generators to support existing infrastructure. Site output is being managed to further enhance efficiencies and regional “war rooms” have been established to ensure the operator has an hour-by-hour account of its systems to keep its customers connected.

“Teams of technicians are being redeployed as and where required, and additional shifts are being added to restore and maintain connectivity as quickly as possible for our customers,” says O’Sullivan.

Entire blackout

Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy comments that when load-shedding occurs, a cellphone tower remains fully functional for as long as the batteries last or the backup generator keeps running.

“Once power is fully depleted, the tower stops working entirely and, depending on the configuration of nearby towers, may cause a coverage area to blackout entirely or for customers to experience intermittent service.”

Kennedy points out that generators run on diesel, which means they can continue to run while being refuelled.

“Batteries, on the other hand, will last anywhere from four to eight hours before they will need electricity to recharge. Stage four load-shedding places additional strain on network operators.”

He explains a notable complication with stage four load-shedding over consecutive days is that batteries don’t get enough time to recharge to full capacity. In addition to this, he notes, more areas are down at the same time, which affects more sites. “We therefore have increased challenges in getting to all of the sites.”

However, Kennedy points out: “Vodacom would like to assure customers that we have put proactive measures in place to help mitigate the effects of widespread load-shedding. For instance, we have deployed additional resources, batteries and generators at numerous sites across the country. We would like to appeal to customers to take note of Eskom’s load-shedding schedule to try and plan around areas affected by scheduled outages.

“We have deployed additional resources, batteries and generators at numerous sites across the country and invested hundreds of millions of rands in these backup power facilities.”

He says Vodacom is aware that many customers around the country will be experiencing issues connecting to the network because of the stage four load-shedding currently in place.

“Our towers do use batteries as a backup, but these do have limited power and will eventually fail. We would like to apologise for any inconvenience – normal service will resume once load-shedding runs its course,” Kennedy says.

Devastating effect

Schalk Visser, Cell C’s acting CTO, points out that load-shedding has a devastating effect on all mobile operators, significantly increasing operational costs associated with keeping base stations alive and protected, as well as negatively impacting customer experience. This is only made worse by stage six, he says.

“Cell C uses both backup battery power and generators to keep up service to customers. However, load-shedding depletes the efficacy of batteries given that they are not given adequate time to recharge, which means battery backup becomes shorter every time.”

The carrier says generator backup is assigned to high-dependency sites with multiple dependencies, but it is not possible to get to all load-shedding affected areas.

“Stage six load-shedding makes this significantly more difficult. Additionally, there is a knock-on effect that lingers after the period of load-shedding, when, for example, substations need to be manually restarted by Eskom.”

Telkom says its emergency team has been activated since Friday to ensure the entire Telkom network is not compromised by the load-shedding and adverse weather conditions.

“Contingency plans are in place, most of our sites have backup batteries, standby and mobile fleets that we can dispatch to sites should a need arise. Sites should go back to normal operation once power is restored in the area. Telkom teams are deployed across the country to ensure that customers experience as little disruption as possible.

“Load-shedding puts significant pressure on our resources, both human and financial, to ensure that customers remain connected to the network. However, at this moment, we prioritise our customers, the safety of our people and assets. The adverse weather conditions also add further complexity to our ability to service areas experiencing flooding.”

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