We tested Vodacom and MTN during load-shedding and there were big problems

MyBroadband has been receiving complaints about network issues relating to Vodacom and MTN during load-shedding and was able to recreate two of these issues within a single load-shedding slot.

Users on MTN have complained about not having any service during load-shedding and sometimes seeing good signal on a device without any Internet connectivity.

Some Vodacom users also complained about a complete lack of signal sometimes. Others complained about being unable to call from Vodacom during load-shedding, even though their devices show good signal.

MyBroadband set out to try and recreate some of these issues during a bout of stage 3 load-shedding on a Monday morning.

The load-shedding slot from 10:00 to 12:30 covered a few areas around Centurion, including parts of Irene, Pierre van Ryneveld and Doringkloof.

We used a Samsung Galaxy S22+ with an MTN and a Vodacom SIM to test for issues and Nokia 5 handsets on both networks as terminating devices.

At the start of the load-shedding slot in Irene, we had good coverage and experienced no issues.

The first issue we encountered was after an hour of load-shedding at the new Irene Link Mall, where we had no MTN signal, even though we usually get coverage there.

At the same time, making calls from Vodacom to Vodacom sometimes went directly to voicemail, but the call usually went through if we tried again.

We continued testing and had the same problem on Vodacom at Irene Village Mall, from Vodacom to MTN.

We verified that the MTN SIM was reachable, as we could call it without problems from MTN.

Once again, simply trying it again solved the problem.

Later, we could not reach the MTN number from the Vodacom SIM while parked at the Pierre van Ryneveld Spar.

It never went to voicemail or connected — the call immediately failed and kicked us back to the dialler application.

This happened consistently, even though the MTN terminating SIM was reachable from an MTN number, and the Vodacom SIM could reach other Vodacom numbers.

This was just before load-shedding ended and is the worst case for a single load-shedding slot.

Still, the fact that we could confirm two of these complaints within a single slot shows that these problems may affect many users.

Vodacom explained that the results of our test may have been a coincidence.

“The end-to-end path between the A and B parties will span a larger geographical area, and involve more telecommunications equipment, than just the area where the local towers are under load-shedding conditions,” a Vodacom spokesperson told MyBroadband.

“Vodacom has invested heavily in backup systems to keep services stable during load-shedding, and as such, we can confirm that none of the sites in and around the area in question did experience an outage during the period in question.”

It said further investigation would be required to trace these specific events.

Vodacom explained that multiple network operators having equipment and sites that could be affected by load-shedding — and other network events during the test — compounds the scenario’s complexity.

It added that data network quality might be affected if backup power is unavailable or depleted.

“The nature of a mobile network is such that a user will automatically attach to the next best tower if the primary site fails,” Vodacom said.

“This can result in lower throughput due to lower signal quality and more congestion.”

Vodacom said it’s for this reason that it has invested heavily in backups for all its critical sites and towers.

“Although load-shedding, especially higher stages of load-shedding, have an impact on the availability of the network, the conditions highlighted by MyBroadband below are not normally associated with load-shedding or, for that matter, network outages at a base station level,” Vodacom said.

“Outages experienced on the radio network — or base station level — will usually result in a degradation of signal in an area and not selective setup or interconnect issues between operators.”

That said, base station outages will impact the availability of all services, including voice and data, across all technologies.

Vodacom said such outages could cause degraded services or a complete loss of service depending on the signal loss.

Jacqui O'Sullivan
Jacqui O’Sullivan, MTN SA executive for corporate affairs and sustainability

Regarding MTN customers seeing signal bars but getting no data throughput, MTN SA corporate affairs and sustainability chief Jacqui O’Sullivan said this should not happen.

“Signal bars indicate the receive level of the signal. Where there is coverage, and the device shows signal, there should be coverage and throughput,” O’Sullivan said.

“This may be caused by another issue as it is a site-specific problem. Network congestion spikes during load-shedding — sites that go down in surrounding areas cause the serving sites that stay up to have to carry more traffic but still transmit.”

This results in the device showing signal bars but experiencing low throughput.

“A site designed to carry a set number of users now has to carry the traffic of itself, as well as the closest sites that have gone down, which reduces the ability to sustain throughput,” stated O’Sullivan.

Regarding calls between Vodacom and MTN SIMs failing while on-network calls connected, O’Sullivan said the radio network does not differentiate between on-net and off-net calls.

“It is possible that off-net calls could fail if the target subscriber on the off-net network is experiencing low performance linked to load-shedding,” she said.

“For a call to be successful for both off-net and on-net calls, both the source and target network needs to be working at the same time. If the source network is up in a certain location, but the target network is a different operator and is down in another location, then the off-net call would possibly fail.”

Now read: Only one mobile network says its customers use more data during load-shedding

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We tested Vodacom and MTN during load-shedding and there were big problems