Municipalities owing Eskom disrupt Vodacom network

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Andries Delport, Vodacom CTO.
Andries Delport, Vodacom CTO.

Defaulting municipalities that owe Eskom billions, coupled with poor electricity distribution infrastructure, are beginning to affect mobile network operations across the country, a senior Vodacom executive says.

Eskom is owed more than R20 billion by defaulting municipalities. The problem has now reached dangerous proportions and is affecting mobile network communications in some areas.

The country’s leading mobile network believes beyond Eskom power cuts, poor electricity distribution infrastructure and debts are affecting smooth operations of providing communications to some areas.

Vodacom Group chief technology officer Andries Delport says: “It’s not just load-shedding; we sometimes find municipalities don’t pay their bills and when Eskom disconnects them, we are on the receiving end of that. In some areas, electricity distribution infrastructure isn’t properly maintained and we end up with downtime on the network because of poor distribution infrastructure.”

Over 12 months during 2017/18, municipal debt swelled by 40%, or R4.16 billion, according to Eskom group executive of customer services Ayanda Noah.

The Free State, Mpumalanga and North West are among the worst offenders, while Gauteng and the Northern Cape also raise concern, according to Eskom’s submission to Parliament this year.

A fortnight ago, Eskom released dire financial numbers, showing the power utility had one of the worst business losses in the country’s history, losing R20.7 billion during the 2018/19 financial year.

Delport also lamented the impact Eskom’s unprecedented spate of load-shedding had on Vodacom.

He says the serious power outages harmed Vodacom’s network and were a sobering reminder of some of the hurdles faced by the operator.

“At the highest level, you look at our network availability and we measure our base stations for many things, including how many minutes it was down. We have 200 000 to 300 000 different radios on our network, 2G, 3G and 4G that we measure. We say, in a month how many minutes each radio was down and we translate that to call availability. If you look at availability now compared to three to four years ago on load-shedding, it’s a lot of downtime on the network.”

Broader coverage

Vodacom says it has upped its network expansion to cover over 97% of the South African population living in rural areas, and rural 4G population coverage now sits at over 75%.

The company says it accelerated its rural coverage programme to cater for more than 16 million people in areas where there has been under-investment by mobile network operators. Six years ago, Vodacom’s 4G service covered only 1% of SA’s rural population, while its 3G network covered 64%.

According to the mobile operator, the final piece of the funding puzzle for the next phase of improving connectivity in rural SA is now in place, with the announcement yesterday that it will contribute more than R9 billion to a network modernisation programme this year that aims to improve mobile broadband and cure cellular dead zones.

Delport says: “Despite the lack of available spectrum, Vodacom has made substantial progress in improving network coverage in both rural and deep rural areas of South Africa. With rural land making up 98.6% of the total land area in SA, Vodacom has prioritised connectivity in these regions, facilitating access to the digital resources which many of us take for granted in cities.

“”Vodacom recognises the need to support rural development by enabling remote communities to access the full economic and social benefits of the Internet. In the year ahead, our plan is to prioritise closing the rural digital divide and help support the South African government’s 4IR [fourth industrial revolution] objectives.”

Vodacom says lengthy delays in completing digital migration meant it had to build a 4G network using spectrum other than the ‘digital dividend’.

“This has hampered the rate at which 4G rural coverage could have been rolled out, as Vodacom has had to unnecessarily build significantly more towers without new spectrum, which has raised input costs.”

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