Internet access in South Africa under threat — and load-shedding is to blame

Load-shedding is threatening Internet access in South Africa, and there is nothing consumers can do about it.

According to Wireless Access Providers’ Association (WAPA) executive management committee member Paul Colmer, buying backup power solutions for connectivity is futile unless your network provider can keep their network up.

“It’s very easy to buy a device off the shelf for under R1,000 which will backup your wireless router for the duration of load-shedding,” Colmer said in an interview with CapeTalk.

“But it serves no purpose whatsoever when the towers drop. It is completely out of control.”

Colmer explained that cellular towers were designed to run on grid power, with some backup to survive for a couple of hours without electricity.

“They certainly weren’t designed for multiple bouts of load-shedding, which depletes the batteries and doesn’t give them sufficient time between the outages,” he said.

“That is a problem compounded by the fact that they’re riddled with battery theft, which has become more prolific because batteries, because of load-shedding, have a higher black market value.”

However, he noted that cellular providers are making inroads regarding backup power solutions for the towers.

Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub announced last year that they spent around R2 billion on batteries, generators, and security for their towers over two years.

Colmer said cellular towers have huge power requirements, meaning they need large backups and sufficient time between outages to recharge.

He added that most of WAPA’s members are smaller connectivity providers that initially built their tower infrastructure without grid power from the beginning, or installed robust backup power systems.

This made it easier for them to go completely off-grid.

“Our power requirements are far less than what cellular towers require,” Colmer said.

“It’s been much easier for us to get back to a 99.9% uptime, which is the huge challenge for the cellular industry.”

Paul Colmer, WAPA Executive Management Committee member and head of the TVWS project

Fibre providers also feel the effects

According to Colmer, cellular networks are not the only form of connectivity impacted by load-shedding, with higher stages presenting a challenge for fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) and fibre-to-the-business (FTTB) providers.

“It’s actually also not a problem just with the cellular networks, but if you look outside of the metros, especially on the old Telkom exchanges, they are collapsing as well now,” he said.

“The older exchanges don’t have enough power to survive stage 6 anymore.”

Colmer said these old Telkom exchanges have fibre feeding the local FTTH and FTTB networks.

In October 2022, major FTTH providers told MyBroadband they had sufficient backups to keep their networks online during stage 5 and 6 load-shedding.

However, they noted that continued prolonged outages could eventually impact their ability to provide connectivity.

Vumatel’s chief operations officer Dewald Booysen said the systems are designed to be backups, not primary power sources.

“If we have extended periods of power outages, the systems could potentially require costly upgrades,” he stated.

“The most significant impact of stage 5 and stage 6 load-shedding is the pressure it places on equipment, the associated cost of running generators over an extended period, and requiring more maintenance teams in the field to improve reaction time should failures occur.”

Telkom’s wholesale and networks division, Openserve, said its network was still performing within “acceptable levels” during stage 5 and 6 load-shedding.

“The risk of depleting battery backup remains the longer we are in stage 5 and 6 load-shedding,” it added.

“If the batteries do not get enough time to recharge for the next cycle, customers will experience poor connectivity.”

Now read: Outa launches legal action to block electricity state of disaster

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Internet access in South Africa under threat — and load-shedding is to blame