Load-shedding upgrades and 5G — What South Africa’s mobile networks plan in 2023

Several of South Africa’s major mobile networks plan to expand their 5G coverage and upgrade backup power systems to better cope with load-shedding in 2023.

Rotational power outages were an immense challenge for mobile network operators in 2022.

Cellular networks rely on towers fitted with radio equipment to beam coverage to customers.

When load-shedding kicks in, this equipment typically switches to backup power from a generator or battery.

However, the original designs were not meant to deal with the regular, intense power cuts Eskom has implemented in recent years.

Before recent upgrades, many would run out of power or not be able to recharge sufficiently between load-shedding cycles.

In addition, base station batteries have been targeted by thieves due to their high street value.

When we asked the country’s five main mobile networks about their plans and challenges for 2023, load-shedding came up as a major focus point.

While we enquired about their general vision for the year ahead, we also specifically asked about their 5G rollout plans and biggest challenges in the coming year. Below is the feedback we received.


Vodacom

A Vodacom spokesperson said the operator had a clear ambition to be the market leader in the countries where it operated, including South Africa.

MyBroadband specifically asked if the operator planned to launch uncapped 4G or 5G products in 2023, something all its rivals except Cell C offer.

But the operator was unable to divulge details on such plans.

“Looking ahead, we have a number of propositions lined up on our roadmap for 2023, which we cannot reveal until we are ready,” they stated. “This is purely due to the competitive nature of our industry.”

We also wanted to find out about its plans to expand its 5G coverage, which it offers in several locations across South Africa.

However, it would not share exactly how many 5G sites it had, nor how many it planned to add in the coming year.

The spokesperson said Vodacom would continue to “expand its 5G coverage ambitions”, driven by relevant use cases, as well as consumer and corporate demands.

Vodacom added that merging its fibre assets with that of CIVH’s Vumatel and DFA was a transformational deal that would enhance its fibre footprint and accelerate the provision of high-speed connectivity solutions to businesses and SMEs in secondary towns and rural areas in the country.

The deal is currently awaiting approval by regulatory authorities.


MTN

MTN executive for corporate affairs, Jacqui O’Sullivan, said the operator would invest heavily into its network infrastructure and focus on delivering an “epic” customer experience.

During the coming year, the operator will continue its radio access network modernisation project to support new features and 5G capability.

“At the end of 2023, MTN South Africa will have modernised more than 80% of its mobile network,” O Sullivan said.

“We’ve deployed significant clusters with 5G coverage in main metros and started rollout in towns in 2021. We will continue to expand our 5G footprint in 2023.”

As part of its network improvements, MTN will also invest “millions” of rand in batteries and security at its base station to keep customers connected during load-shedding.

O’Sullivan said MTN’s “Ultra-Rural Rollout” will be another big drive for the operator in 2023.

“The purpose of the Ultra-Rural Rollout is to deploy reliable and high-speed networks to remote communities where there are lower population densities and a lack of existing infrastructure which has traditionally not been economically viable, leaving rural areas unconnected.”

Lastly, MTN plans to expand its Mobile Money (MoMo) offering, reduce data prices, improve its wholesale/managed network products, and focus on environmental, social and corporate governance.


Telkom

Telkom said it planned significant upgrades to its network in 2023.

“These sites will serve metros as well as connect rural communities and townships across the country,” the operator said.

Telkom launched its 5G network at 136 live sites in November 2022 and said it planned to continue rolling out 5G hubs across the country in the coming year.

“5G positions us well in reclaiming our fixed-wireless access leadership,” said Telkom.

“We believe that 5G will be another step towards ensuring everyone has access to connectivity, irrespective of where they are situated in the country.”

From a financial perspective, Telkom said its biggest challenge was that it is trading at a deep discount to its intrinsic value.

“It is often overlooked that Telkom’s network remains the backbone of South Africa’s fixed Internet operations — as it has been for most of the country’s online history,” the operator said.

“As such, we have been laser-focused on delivering on our strategy to provide shareholder value by ensuring long-term, sustainable growth.”

Telkom expects to continue facing network challenges due to load-shedding, and infrastructure theft and vandalism in the coming year.

Telkom said its own team and Rain’s were working through the latter’s proposal that Telkom buys Rain to understand what the potential synergies and opportunities for growth were.

“The plan is to finalise these discussions by end of December,” Telkom said.

However, the operator said it remained open to engaging with MTN on its earlier offer to buy Telkom, a proposal that it withdrew following news of Rain’s proposition.


Cell C

Cell C said it would continue evolving its business model to transition “from a telco to a techco” that provides customers with uninterrupted connectivity and access to a “digital lifestyle”.

It plans to complete the decommissioning of its physical radio access network by 2023, with all customers migrated to roam on Vodacom and MTN’s networks by the end of the year.

The operator also said it had go-to-market plans in place for new offerings.

Cell C added that the high-demand spectrum it acquired and its finalised recapitalisation would allow for deploying the right technologies and continuing to innovate its products and services to meet the needs of its customers.

The operator was unable to provide a progress update on the status of its engagements with infrastructure partners to roll out 5G, but reiterated its intention to offer the next-generation connectivity in the future.


Rain

Rain told MyBroadband it planned to further scale up its operations by using its new radio frequency spectrum to increase coverage for its 4G and 5G networks, both for fixed and mobile services.

While Rain currently offers both fixed and mobile 4G plans, its 5G offers are all on a fixed basis.

However, according to Johan van Zyl, co-CEO of majority shareholder Arc, the company planned to launch a mobile 5G network by September 2023.

Rain will also host and launch Nvidia’s GeForce Now in 2023, the first cloud gaming service that will become available in South Africa.


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Load-shedding upgrades and 5G — What South Africa’s mobile networks plan in 2023