Eskom could cripple 5G in South Africa

Regular load-shedding could have an even bigger impact on mobile network connectivity with the rollout of 5G in South Africa.

Eskom’s load-shedding has often left mobile network users frustrated as they were left with slower or no connectivity.

This is because the mobile towers which provide reception are run on the utility’s grid.

While mobile operators’ have installed batteries to provide backup power, these may also encounter problems with multiple bouts of load-shedding over short periods.

If the gaps between load-shedding slots are too small, the batteries are unable to charge back to full capacity, which means they will run out of power more quickly during the next outage.

With the rollout of 5G in South Africa, this issue could become even more pervasive.

More than double the electricity usage

MTN Consulting Chief Analyst Matt Walker previously published a report titled “Operators facing power cost crunch” that showed a 5G base station consumes up to twice or more the electricity of a 4G station.

Energy consumption is expected to be even greater with higher-frequency 5G, as a larger number of antennas with a denser concentration are required.

According to Huawei, a 5G base station will consume more than 11.5kWh of electricity.

“In the 5G era, the maximum energy consumption of a 64T64R active antenna unit (AAU) will be an estimated 1 to 1.4 kW to 2 kW for a baseband unit (BBU),” Huawei said.

The overall usage is around 70% more than a base station which offers a mixture of 2G, 3G, and 4G antennas, as illustrated in the graph below.

What operators say

With 5G consuming more electricity than 4G, backup batteries for load-shedding may deplete even faster, which could make matters even more inconvenient for customers.

However, according to South Africa’ two biggest mobile operators, it is not expected that the next-generation connectivity technology will have as significant an impact on power consumption – at least in the early stages of the technology.

Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy said that while overall electricity usage will increase with the additional radios installed for 5G, the operator expects power consumption to be similar to that of LTE on average.

“Initially, though, due to the low 5G traffic, 5G power consumption is expected to be low,” Kennedy said.

MTN Executive for Corporate Affairs Jacqui O’Sullivan told MyBroadband that 5G will require additional baseband capacity and more radio units at sites.

“It’s difficult to give a definitive power increase percentage because 5G is envisaged to be deployed on multiple bands,” O’Sullivan said.

“It is estimated that these additional radio units will increase power consumption by 20-30% depending on the scenario,” she added.

O’Sullivan said that MTN was implementing features to manage power at a site level to address these changes.

Other operators have faced significant challenges in their deployment of 5G infrastructure due to Eskom’s rolling blackouts.

Rain does not have battery backups at many of its 5G sites, which means that when these are hit by load-shedding, customers either fall back onto 4G where available or lose connectivity entirely.

Battery theft a big problem

O’Sullivan said that load-shedding not only cost operators more with regards to additional batteries, but also the additional security mechanisms required for this backup power.

“Last year the company began its optimisation and resilience programme on backup power and security. The program is aimed at stabilising the network,” O’Sullivan said.

Theft of backup batteries at base stations have historically been a major problem for operators, resulting in further tower downtime during load-shedding.

Kennedy said that there were multiple incidents of break-ins at Vodacom’s base stations on a daily basis.

This means that vandalism also posed a significant threat to Vodacom’s 5G rollout.

“It is estimated that local cellphone network providers lose hundreds of millions of Rands worth of damage to their base stations annually as a result of theft and vandalism which ultimately impacts the cost of mobile services,” Kennedy stated.

Now read: Buying a 5G smartphone in South Africa – What to consider

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Eskom could cripple 5G in South Africa