Picture: DAILY DISPATCH
Picture: DAILY DISPATCH

South Africans may find themselves with increasingly worse cellphone reception if stage 4 load-shedding persists, say local mobile operators. 

Unlike stages 1 and 2, which the country has become accustomed to, the country’s mobile networks say stage 4 has meant backup power sources are less reliable in keeping voice and data services going.

In stage 1 electricity cuts, power utility Eskom takes out 1,000MW from the national grid, while in stage 2 that increases to 2,000MW. At stage 6, which would generally leave customers without power for half a day, 6,000MW is cut from the grid.

Cell C acting chief technology officer Schalk Visser said the company uses 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 that battery backup becomes shorter every time. Generator backup is assigned to high-dependency sites with multiple dependencies, but it is not possible to get to all load-shedding affected areas.”

He said stage 6 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,” Visser said. 

Circumstances are no better for SA’s largest operator, Vodacom. Spokesperson Byron Kennedy said generators run on diesel, which means they can continue to run while being refuelled, while batteries last between four and eight hours before they will need electricity to recharge.

“Stage 4 load-shedding places additional strain on network operators. A notable complication with stage 4 load-shedding over consecutive days is that batteries don’t get enough time to recharge to full capacity,” said Kennedy.

He said Vodacom spends significant amounts on backup power solutions such as diesel generators and batteries to maintain power to its sites. “Additional input costs and revenue losses amount to tens of millions of rand,” said Kennedy. 

The country’s second-largest network operator, MTN, said it spent about R300m in 2018 on batteries for existing sites. In addition to the batteries, MTN has 1,800 generators in use. 

“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 3 and 4 load-shedding is simply not happening. This situation is exacerbated with the introduction of stage 6 load-shedding,” said Jacqui O’Sullivan, executive for corporate affairs at MTN SA.

MTN said 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 vandalism.

“Network operators across the country have been battling sophisticated syndicates that have been stealing batteries daily. However, load-shedding is seeing entire neighbourhoods cloaked in darkness at predictable times, which is offering criminals greater cover for their thieving,” O’Sullivan said. 

All four major operators said they are deploying additional generators and manpower to support existing infrastructure and keep voice and data customers connected. MTN said it has established regional “war rooms” to “ensure they have an hour-by-hour account of our systems”. 

Fixed-line operator Telkom said it has had emergency teams on standby since last Friday. “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. The adverse weather conditions also adds further complexity to our ability to service areas experiencing flooding,” the company said. 

gavazam@businesslive.co.za