MTN South Africa CEO Charles Molapisi says they are accelerating investments in alternative power sources and expect to be completely off-grid at most sites in future.
This is so that load-shedding, which leads to increased theft and vandalism of infrastructure, does not affect their quality of service.
Molapisi said statistics show that load-shedding is directly correlated with the spike in vandalism and battery or generator theft at network sites.
During the period of regular stage 6 power cuts last year, there was a major escalation of attacks. Tower companies recorded a 250% increase in the loss of generators.
“Even during stage one and two load-shedding, which has a lesser impact on us as our batteries can still recharge, we still face the issue of vandalism and theft, which severely impacts our network and service delivery,” he said.
Molapisi also announced that MTN is accelerating its network resilience project with an investment of R1.5 billion into the programme.
He said the nationwide programme aims to ward off the negative impact and frustration caused by power cuts, theft, and vandalism.
This comes after Molapisi told the Business Times last week that MTN will have to raise prices to invest in backup power and theft-proofing their sites.
He also said they would have to pause plans to build new network infrastructure, including slowing down its 5G network expansion.
In a statement on Thursday, Molapisi said this would help improve network availability and stability over the long term.
“The investment will see us installing solar power, batteries, and generators, and enhancing security features at base stations to ensure improved network availability during load-shedding, when many instances of theft and vandalism occur,” Molapisi said.
MTN said criminals stealing batteries and vandalising infrastructure is a huge problem affecting all mobile operators.
The damage to sites can impact many thousands of customers, across networks.
Although all provinces are struggling, MTN said the Eastern Cape is currently the most affected.
Citing internal data, MTN said over 390 unique sites had been vandalised since January 2022 alone, with criminals returning to the same sites more than five times after each repair.
Over 1,000 vandalism incidents have been recorded during this period in the Eastern Cape, with cable, battery, equipment, and air conditioner theft all on the rise.
Other items damaged and stolen are doors, containers, fences, security systems, and locks.
“Diesel theft, copper, battery and generator theft all mean extended periods of downtime as recovery teams work around the clock to repair the damage and bring in replacement batteries,” Molapisi said.
“It is also not an issue that solely affects the rural areas.”
Preparing for total grid collapse
“We are currently engaged with a number of critical role-players for collaborative solutions on matters related to the potential of any extended outages.”
Given the context of Molapisi’s statement, it appears he was being euphemistic about MTN preparing for a total grid collapse.
“Our focus is on our people and customers, fuel supply, fuel movements, security resourcing and sustaining national and emergency services,” he said.
MTN said that its network availability plan has resulted in the upgrade of 3,253 sites by the end of February 2023, with the aim of finishing the project in May.
It said this would likely significantly improve network availability in the second half of the year.