How load-shedding takes down mobile networks

Last night, Eskom announced that it moved to stage 6 load-shedding, which means that it needs to shed approximately 6,000MW.

During stage 6 load-shedding, South Africans will experience either more frequent power cuts or longer blackouts depending on their municipality’s strategy.

The impact of more and longer blackouts is felt throughout the economy, which includes telecommunications networks.

While these networks invested billions in battery backup systems and generators, their mobile sites continue to face significant threats due to Eskom’s ongoing load-shedding.

Why load-shedding takes down mobile sites

MTN SA executive for corporate affairs Jacqui O’Sullivan explained why stage three, four, and six load-shedding is so devastating for mobile networks.

The majority of MTN’s sites have been equipped with battery backup systems to ensure there is enough power on-site to run the systems for several hours when local power goes down.

However, the frequency of load-shedding is resulting in batteries not having enough time to recharge.

“These batteries generally have a capacity of 6 to 12 hours, depending on the site category,” O’Sullivan said.

“The batteries require 12 to 18 hours to recharge, which in stage three and four load-shedding is simply not happening.”

This situation is exacerbated with the introduction of stage six load-shedding, O’Sullivan said.

Impact goes further than downtime

The constant outages are also starting to have a direct impact on the performance of the batteries.

“If stage six outages continue, the battery’s integrity is compromised because of the insufficient time to recharge and due to the excessive drain on the battery,” O’Sullivan said.

Excluding the amount spent on new batteries for new cell phone sites, MTN spent around R300 million in 2018 on batteries for existing sites. MTN also has 1,800 generators currently in use.

Additional security needed

Another significant additional cost of load-shedding is the extra on-site security that is needed to protect the batteries, generators, and general site equipment from thieves and vandals.

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 offers criminals greater cover for their thievery.

Pressure on MTN resources

The extent of the outages has placed a significant strain on MTN’s overall network resources.

Teams have had to be reassigned from growth projects to emergency management of sites, and MTN said it is currently sourcing additional generators to support existing infrastructure.

“Site output is being managed to further enhance efficiencies and regional war rooms have been established to ensure we have an hour-by-hour account of our systems,” O’Sullivan said.

“Teams of technicians are being redeployed as and where required additional shifts are being added to restore and maintain connectivity as quickly as possible.”

Now read: Worst blackouts in South Africa’s history

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How load-shedding takes down mobile networks