South Africa could face network blackouts thanks to Eskom power cuts
South Africa’s biggest mobile operators — Vodacom and MTN — are fighting to keep their networks online during stage 5 and 6 load-shedding, with Vodacom saying some areas risk total coverage blackouts.
The companies are battling battery theft at their towers and high fuel costs as they try to keep their networks up through ongoing rotational power cuts.
MTN’s executive for corporate affairs, Jacqui O’Sullivan, said that while the situation is challenging, the mobile operator is managing to keep its network stable using billions of rands worth of batteries.
“It’s tough, we’re managing to keep our mobile network stable, but that’s also because we’ve spent billions on batteries,” she said during an SAfm interview.
However, she explained that stage 5 and stage 6 load-shedding make it impossible to charge their batteries to full capacity.
“The problem is that the batteries need 12 to 18 hours to recharge. They give you 6 to 12 hours of capacity depending on the site,” O’Sullivan said.
“The key thing is that during stage 5 and stage 6, there isn’t 12 to 18 hours between load-shedding to allow those batteries to recharge.”
She added that it is vital for MTN to ensure it has enough “backup to the backup”, having deployed more than 2,000 generators to keep its towers online when the batteries die.
“When the batteries are challenged, that’s when we use the generators,” she said.
“During levels five and six, we’re using 450,000 litres of fuel a month.”
O’Sullivan explained that MTN monitors its backup systems constantly to ensure its towers don’t lose power.
“We’ve had to put all hands on deck. We’ve got a war room that’s monitoring this 24 hours a day,” she said.
Vodacom also uses battery backups at its towers, which are constantly at risk of being stolen, and the mobile operator has warned that some regions may be at risk of total blackouts.
Under stage 6 load-shedding, it faces the same problems as MTN.
“Vodacom’s towers are equipped with backup batteries, however these have limited power and will eventually fail,” News24 quoted a Vodacom spokesperson as saying.
“Stage 6 does mean more frequent and protracted power outages, which impacts the ability of our batteries to recharge fully.”
Vodacom added that its towers remain fully operational while the batteries can supply power, but extensive power cuts lead to base stations going offline.
It said that, depending on the configuration of nearby towers, some coverage areas could experience intermittent connectivity or complete network blackouts.
MyBroadband contacted Vodacom and MTN for comment.
“We would like to appeal to customers to follow Eskom’s load shedding schedules to keep planning ahead and we apologize for any inconvenience caused,” Vodacom said.
The company also said it spent around R2 billion on batteries over the past two years.
MTN said it had upgraded the battery backups at 70% of its sites, and that it is currently deploying more batteries to combat Stage 4 and higher load-shedding.
In May 2022, Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub explained that their backup battery systems carried substantial costs.
“When it comes to power outages, we spend over a billion rand a year on batteries,” Joosub said
The CEO said Vodacom was trying to ensure that all 15,000 of its towers had sufficient backup batteries to keep the network online and customers happy.
“Creating resilience is the single biggest issue that we have today in terms of South Africa’s network performance,” Joosub said.
“We are constantly having to improve the standby time. First, it was four hours, then it became six hours, then eight hours.”
A recent MyBroadband analysis revealed that Vodacom customers experienced significant drops in network performance during periods of load-shedding.
During lower stages of load-shedding earlier this month, Vodacom’s average download speed dropped to 84% of what they normally are when there are no rotational power cuts.