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Picture: 123RF/SAM74100
Picture: 123RF/SAM74100

As Mondli Gungubele prepares to give his first budget vote speech as minister in charge of the country’s ICT sector, mobile operators are calling on the government to find and implement effective solutions to the energy crisis. 

The recently formed Association of Communications & Technology (ACT) says it “is deeply concerned about the worsening status of load-shedding”. The association said the recent increased and sustained levels of load-shedding have already set new records, “and we’re yet to reach halfway through 2023”.

ACT is a non-profit organisation made up of operators Cell C, Liquid Intelligent Technologies, MTN, Rain, Telkom and Vodacom. 

Mobile operators — burdened by heavy costs to keep their network running during power outages — have been struggling as Eskom’s extended power cuts sometimes deplete the batteries of their cellphone towers, leading to customers losing their signal.

With persistent load-shedding and a rise in vandalism and theft aggravating SA’s fragile economic recovery and affecting service delivery, operators have had to take on extra costs, creeping into the billions to reduce the impact of load-shedding. 

“Invariably, load-shedding is more severe during the colder months, which means that the impact on an already hard-hit ICT sector is likely to worsen. This will make it increasingly difficult for mobile network operators to keep people and businesses connected — despite having made substantial investments in back-up power solutions to improve network resilience during load-shedding,” the association said. 

“Naturally, these investments could have been better spent on accelerating rural coverage, fast-tracking 5G adoption and further addressing the cost to communicate in SA.”

This comes as Telkom warned, on Wednesday, that its profits had taken a hit for the year to end-March due to rising living costs in SA and the effect of power cuts on consumers. It shelled out an additional R150m in its third quarter to mitigate the effect of load-shedding.

Earlier in the week Vodacom said it has spent R4bn since 2020 on backing up its network against power outages. The telecom group says this expenditure has been diverted from planned investment to improve the quality of its network and new technologies such as 5G.

MTN shares took a hit last week when it reported that power outages would hamper its performance in SA in the current financial year. Earlier in the year, the group said it had set aside R1.5bn to deal with the effects of power outages in 2023.  

As minister of communications and digital technologies, Gungubele will host his inaugural budget vote speech on Wednesday afternoon. The association hopes “this will be an ideal opportunity to address some of the aforementioned issues for the sector to move forward”.

The telecom operators have put together a proposal for government, which includes:

  • Creating a diesel rebate to ensure that the high cost of diesel does not unduly burden the sector’s commercial operations. “Our members have been forced to reallocate their annual expenditure to deal with load-shedding, which is unsustainable in the long term, given the high cost of diesel,” the association said.
  • Compelling the department of trade, industry and competition to urgently publish the block exemption regulations to allow competitors to co-ordinate on finding solutions to the load-shedding crisis, such as collaborating on using common power sources and sharing security on co-located sites.
  • Designating the industry in terms of the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act 8 of 2019 and acknowledging its importance as a national strategic asset.
  • Increasing penalties for economic sabotage of physical infrastructure, including fines and prison sentences, to deter individuals and organisations from engaging in such activities. “The economic sabotage of physical infrastructure continues to have a significant impact on mobile network operators in SA. Theft and vandalism of telecommunications infrastructure, such as towers, base stations, and fibreoptic cables, compounds the disruption of network coverage and service, resulting in loss of revenue for the economy as a whole as well as the MNOs [mobile network operators].”
  • Providing regulatory relief, including allowing MNOs to temporarily increase their network capacity through the provision of temporal spectrum and relaxing arduous regulatory obligations. 
  • Affording greater warning when there will be significant changes in load-shedding stages, so operators are able to plan better and mobilise resources, such as generators.

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