Mobile network operators have all been affected by the most recent round of load-shedding.
These outages don’t just inhibit South Africans’ ability to access the Internet via a fixed-line service – they also disrupt cellular connectivity.
Mobile network operators rely on a reliable supply of electricity at their base stations to provide customers with coverage.
All operators have contingency measures in place in case of a power outage, including back-up generators or batteries that keep their towers operational during load-shedding.
However, due to factors like battery recharge times and a wave of criminal activity at base stations, the operators’ ability to contain these effects has been limited.
MyBroadband spoke to South Africa’s major mobile network operators about some of the problems they face during load-shedding.
Executive for Corporate Affairs at MTN South Africa, Jacqui O’Sullivan, said that MTN’s network experienced some issues due to recent outages.
“For example, the recent stage 2 load-shedding resulted in multiple sites affected across South Africa. The most affected regions are KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and the Eastern Cape,” O’Sullivan said.
O’Sullivan also acknowledged the negative effect of battery theft at their base stations.
“Battery theft and vandalism at cell phone towers are at a crisis level and this has reached a point where customers are affected, and operational impact is being experienced where the frequency of the load-shedding exceeds the capacity of the back-up devices,” O’Sullivan said.
“Our batteries generally have a capacity of 6-12 hours, dependent on the site category and require 12-18 hours to recharge, dependent on the battery technology type. Where consecutive load-shedding took place, batteries are unable to fully recharge, resulting in reduced back-up times.”
The result is that MTN customers may sometimes experience connectivity problems during periods of load-shedding.
“Loss of services and network quality can range from a 2-5km radius to 15km on some sites and affect 5,000 to 20,000 people. On hub sites, network coverage to entire suburbs and regions can be lost.”
A Vodacom spokesperson told MyBroadband that the network had only suffered isolated instances of network issues during recent periods of load-shedding.
“While certain individual sites were impacted during the recent spell of load-shedding, there were no major failures on the Vodacom network.”
Vodacom said that it is actively working to deploy additional resources, including batteries and generators, to base stations across the country.
It also previously stated that the financial impact of maintaining these backup measures has resulted in additional costs and revenue losses which amounted to “tens of millions of rands”.
Cell C stated that load-shedding also affects their network in the same way it does all of the other mobile network operators in the country.
“The enduring myth of load-shedding and its impact on mobile phone usage is that some networks are completely unaffected. You only need to toss the name of a network into Twitter during or just after an outage for confirmation that you are not alone,” the company said.
The operator indicated that it is impossible to provide generators to all of its base stations.
“Backup generators are primarily assigned to base stations where there is a high volume of traffic and it’s not possible to get generators to all load-shedding affected areas,” Cell C said.
It also mentioned the necessity to conduct repairs after outages as a possible reason why network connectivity may be affected even after load-shedding has stopped.
“In some cases, transformers at substations trip and require Eskom manpower to bring back online, extending the period without power,” Cell C stated.
“Additionally, electricity surges when power returns on may mean that equipment at base stations are affected and need to be replaced or rebooted before those sites can be restored.”
The company also acknowledged that crime worsens the effect of load-shedding, stating that operators experience double the average rates of vandalism during outages.
Cell C also warned users who purchased limited-time bundles that it cannot refund these purchases if the data happens to be active over a period of load-shedding.
“Unfortunately we won’t refund you if you experience load-shedding on a day you buy a daily bundle. None of the major telcos offers a refund for bundle contents that expire while load-shedding is in effect.”
Telkom did not respond to a request for comment.