South Africa struggles to keep phone networks up when the lights go out

South Africa struggles to maintain cellphone networks up when the lights exit

  • Cell operators spend thousands and thousands on gas, backup methods
  • Further prices forcing the diversion of capital from 5G, rural networks
  • Widespread theft of batteries, turbines will increase bills
  • Business looking for exemption from competitors legislation to melt blow

JOHANNESBURG, April 5 — On a current Friday morning north of Johannesburg, the top of South Africa’s greatest telco surveyed the arsenal of backup methods which can be preserving simply one in all his 15,000 community towers on-line amid the worst blackouts ever.

A diesel generator. Photo voltaic panels. A financial institution of high-priced backup batteries, theft-proof in a concrete block.

“Our prices have gone by way of the roof,” lamented Sitho Mdlalose, chief govt of Vodacom South Africa ( VODJ.J ).

Because the nationwide energy grid crumbles, leaving Africa’s most superior financial system in the dead of night for as much as 10 hours a day, cell operators together with Vodacom, MTN ( MTNJ.J ) and majority state-owned Telkom ( TKGJ.J ) are scrambling to make sure their networks stay operational drive.

They’re spending thousands and thousands putting in photo voltaic panels, batteries and even trialling wind generators as they aim offers with unbiased energy producers to complement struggling state utility Eskom’s more and more unreliable output, three firm executives instructed Reuters.

At stake: important voice and information providers in a nation the place landlines are uncommon however practically 80% of residents have entry to cell web.

General, the electrical energy disaster and logistical constraints are anticipated to wipe 2 proportion factors from financial development this 12 months, in keeping with the South African Reserve Financial institution governor.

Mary-Jane Mphahlele, a lawyer who additionally runs a small journey company within the city of Polokwane, finds financial exercise misplaced each time the facility goes out.

“New prospects cannot name me … It means no cash is coming into my enterprise,” the 29-year-old mentioned. “It is hell.”

As they battle to easily mitigate the worsening disaster, telcos have seen working prices skyrocket. Vodacom and MTN executives instructed Reuters they wanted to divert capital away from much-needed community upgrades and 5G rollouts.

In the meantime, they mentioned authorities rules are blocking potential options, similar to sharing backup energy infrastructure with their rivals, and revealed they’re lobbying authorities to assist ease the ache.

“Authorities and enterprise should collectively seize this second,” MTN Group CEO Ralph Mupita instructed buyers final month. “If we do not act as a rustic, we definitely threat turning into a failed nation-state.”


South Africa’s energy scarcity – a product of years of corruption, an lack of ability so as to add technology capability, continual outages and underutilized renewable vitality capability – has hampered the financial system and sparked public anger.

President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a nationwide state of emergency in February, calling the disaster an existential risk to South Africa’s social material.

Energy outages have price South Africa’s quantity two operator MTN about 640 million rand ($36 million) in service income prior to now 12 months, forcing it to downgrade its medium-term margin goal.

Telkom has incurred over 150 million rand in further prices in its third quarter ending December 2022 alone.

Vodacom – majority-owned by London-listed Vodafone ( VOD.L ) – spends properly over 300 million rand a 12 months on further prices, together with gas, battery replacements, repairs and safety, Mdlalose instructed Reuters.

Whereas most community towers in South Africa are geared up with a battery for backup energy, extra superior methods are much less widespread. MTN, for instance, has 12,900 towers in South Africa, however solely about 3,000 diesel turbines and photo voltaic panels on just a few pilot crops.

Firms are concentrating these further sources on high-revenue websites, primarily in main city areas, officers mentioned. However even metropolis residents battle when hours-long outages outlast backup measures.

“You simply have to attend for the electrical energy to return again or transfer across the metropolis to get networked,” mentioned lawyer and businesswoman Mphahlele, who lives in a provincial capital of about half 1,000,000 individuals.

MTN is spending about 9 billion rand in capital expenditure in South Africa, with most of it going to roll out longer-lasting batteries and diesel turbines, CEO Mupita instructed reporters final month. Telkom implements vitality options for over 200 key areas.

Vodacom can be increasing battery utilization and putting in photo voltaic panels the place area permits, Mdlalose mentioned.

Nevertheless it’s a zero-sum recreation that forces different necessary tasks on the again burner.

“We’re more likely to decelerate on superior CAPEX-related portfolios like accelerating 5G,” MTN Group chief monetary officer Tsholofelo Molefe instructed Reuters.

Vodacom expects to decelerate its rural community drive and redirect these funds to backup energy rollout.

It dangers delaying South Africa’s pivot to the digital financial system and will go away rural areas, which already endure from sparse protection, lagging even additional behind.


The challenges will not be simply monetary. As telecommunications enhance their efforts, felony gangs are doing the identical, focusing on newly put in turbines, batteries and stealing gas.

At a tower website shared by Vodacom and MTN in Soweto, a big township south of Johannesburg, thieves lately smashed by way of concrete to make off with cables, radio transmitter processors and an air conditioner.

Mdlalose mentioned Vodacom sees between 600 and 700 such assaults each month and loses about 5,500 batteries yearly to theft.

MTN didn’t share information on its whole losses to felony exercise, however mentioned it has witnessed a pointy enhance in incidents together with cable and battery theft. It should start putting some battery methods inside concrete bunkers.

With prices rising, cell operators are turning to the federal government for assist.

MTN is looking for a brief rest of visa guidelines to usher in overseas technicians, together with from Nigeria, the place towers rely closely on diesel turbines, Mupita instructed MTN’s buyers.

It’s also looking for readability on whether or not the state of emergency permits cell operators to permit one another to freely roam throughout networks to keep away from dropped calls, MTN chief monetary officer Molefe instructed Reuters.

It may bypass lengthy approval processes and keep away from restrictions on locations the place roaming is allowed and which frequency bands corporations can roam on.

Telcos additionally need the identical gas rebates loved by the agriculture and mining sectors, in keeping with Nomvuyiso Batyi, govt director of the Affiliation of Comms and Expertise.

They usually wish to save on prices by collectively buying and working backup energy gear, she and Vodacom’s Mdlalose added.

The regulator, which oversees the sector, mentioned it was contemplating measures “to enhance the impression of load shedding on service supply, financial exercise and social well-being.”

And the federal government’s Competitors Fee instructed Reuters that the Minister for Commerce, Business and Competitors was contemplating public enter as his division drafts exemptions for energy customers throughout the state of catastrophe.

The ultimate guidelines, which Vodacom’s Mdlalose sees as a lifeline for the business, have but to be printed.

“If we’re not allowed to try this, it will be an actual tragedy,” he mentioned. “It is a nationwide disaster.”

($1 = 17.8096 rand)

Reporting by Nqobile Dludla Enhancing by Joe Bavier

Our requirements: Thomson Reuters Belief Ideas.

Author: ZeroToHero

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