Not even Stage 6 load-shedding can bring South Africa’s fibre networks down

South Africa’s major fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) networks say their backup power has been sufficient in dealing with stage 5 and 6 load-shedding but warned that continued prolonged outages could eventually impact their ability to provide connectivity.

Fibre offers one of the most reliable means of connecting to the Internet — including during power outages.

Mobile network towers often struggle to remain online in extended power cuts due to batteries not getting enough time to recharge, or battery theft.

Most prominent FTTH providers have backup power systems in place at various points in their networks to ensure continued connectivity.

So long as households have an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) for keeping their router and optical network terminal (ONT) online, they can remain connected over their fibre.

We asked the country’s biggest fibre network operators (FNOs) how their networks have performed during stage 5 and stage 6 load-shedding and to what extent they can provide backup power.


Frogfoot

Frogfoot head of sales and marketing Shane Chorley said the operator had made significant investments in a mix of lithium-ion batteries and generators to ensure its network was protected from high levels of load-shedding.

“Provided that we don’t go past stage 8, we can keep the power from running out,” Chorley said.

Chorley said Frogfoot was using a variety of backup systems for different nodes along its network.

“High-level nodes would require more power and as such, we have a generator, UPS and batteries to back these up, while the lower-level nodes are backed up on batteries,” he explained.

He acknowledged that higher load-shedding stages did impact Frogfoot’s network uptime as it was connected to nodes from other vendors who might not have the same backup power.

“We are working as closely as possible with our third-party suppliers to understand their readiness and capability around backup power, however, we do not have ultimate control over their operations and capabilities,” Chorley stated.


MetroFibre

MetroFibre said it had successfully navigated through stage 6 before and had minimal power losses to date.

The FNO also uses a mixture of power supplies at its points-of-presence (PoP).

“We have upgraded smaller PoP sites with more battery capacity and also looked at our charging currents to make sure we have sufficient uptime to our PoP sites,” MetroFibre said.

“All PoP sites are equipped with battery backup. Some bigger PoPs also have generators installed.”

MetroFibre actively monitors diesel levels in its generators remotely throughout the day.

“We also have warning notifications in place that assist on a national level,” the operator said.

MetroFibre said it would investigate the risks to each individual PoP site should load-shedding move beyond stage 6 and implement measures accordingly to ensure customers had connectivity.

The FNO provides customers a mini UPS for keeping their home fibre router and ONT online during load-shedding.

It recommended that customers get surge protection fitted on their distribution board or a UPS to protect their sensitive electronic equipment from power surges.


Openserve

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

“The Openserve core and fibre networks have not been adversely affected partly due to the resilient and redundant network architecture and associated investment we have made in backup power generators, UPS and battery storage for our sites,” the company said.

It provided similar feedback to the other operators regarding prolonged high levels of load-shedding.

“The risk of depleting battery backup remains the longer we are in stage 5 and 6 load-shedding. If the batteries do not get enough time to recharge for the next cycle, customers will experience poor connectivity,” Openserve warned.

In addition, the FNO said the risk of backup standby generators failing due to maintenance and refuelling requirements also increased the longer load-shedding lasted.


Octotel

Octotel said its network’s backup power systems were designed from the outset to allow for multiple and extended load-shedding events.

“With the higher stages in load-shedding, the monitoring of the power is prioritised, and additional backup plans are implemented to ensure continuity of services,” Octotel said.

Octotel CEO Trevor van Zyl explained all of the operator’s nodes were equipped with the “latest generation, state-of-the-art” grid-tied inverter-and-lithium—battery backup systems with automated 24/7 remote monitoring and management.

“With this said, we invested in a more resilient inverter solution coupled with the higher capacity batteries, allowing our customers to have uninterrupted internet access through the ‘dark times’ brought on by load-shedding,” Van Zyl stated.

Octotel said although minimum uptime varied by neighbourhood, nine hours was the planned threshold across its network.

“In the event that power is not restored within these timeframes, additional backup is available with battery, portable generators to ensure the fibre network is working until the power is fully restored.”


Vumatel

Vumatel’s chief operations officer Dewald Booysen said the company’s network had the required backup power to continue servicing customers during weeks-long power outages, planned or unplanned.

Vumatel has also invested in its infrastructure over the past two years to improve uptime under the increased frequency of outages and their impact on equipment life expectancy.

However, Booysen said these systems were 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.”

Booysen pointed out that one challenge was the surges that came with power being restored, which has damaged equipment and caused unplanned network outages in limited cases.

“We have seen an increase in equipment failure due to power surges linked to these stages of load-shedding, putting additional pressure on maintenance teams.”

“We also have areas where substations do not come up after scheduled load-shedding,  putting additional pressure on our backup power in these areas.”

Furthermore, Vumatel had noticed an increase in equipment failure in residents’ homes due to power surges.

“Therefore, we recommend consumers whose connectivity devices are not protected by UPS or surge protection adapters unplug all electronic devices during load-shedding and only switch them on a few minutes after the power is restored,” said Booysen.

Booysen added that load-shedding also resulted in a surge in criminals stealing copper cables that provide power to various components along its network.


Now read: International fibre bandwidth explosion in South Africa

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Not even Stage 6 load-shedding can bring South Africa’s fibre networks down