Network operators ask for diesel rebate and relaxed competition rules over load-shedding

South Africa’s mobile network operators have asked government for a diesel rebate and permission to collaborate on sharing power sources and security at their towers.

Through their industry association, the Association of Comms and Technology (ACT), the operators expressed their “deep concern” about the worsening status of load-shedding.

ACT members include Vodacom, Liquid Intelligent Technologies, MTN, Rain, and Telkom.

“Heightened and sustained levels of load-shedding in recent times have already resulted in a record quantum of energy shed by South Africa’s power utility Eskom in a calendar year — and we’re yet to reach halfway through 2023,” they said.

“Invariably, load-shedding is more severe during the colder months which means that the impact on an already hard-hit ICT sector is likely to worsen.”

ACT warned this would make it increasingly difficult for mobile network operators to keep people and businesses connected, despite their already substantial investments in backup power and network resilience.

The companies also emphasized the opportunity cost.

“Naturally, these investments could have been better spent on accelerating rural coverage, fast-tracking 5G adoption and further addressing the cost to communicate in South Africa,” ACT said.

“So that further funds are not diverted from their intended purpose, it is crucial that the government and regulators take immediate and effective action to address the power crisis, network security as well as the issue of economic sabotage of physical infrastructure by outlining a comprehensive plan to address the problem.”

To mitigate the effect of load-shedding on South Africa’s networks, they asked communication minister Mondli Gungubele to address several issues in his budget vote speech tomorrow (Wednesday, 17 May 2023).

ACT asked government to consider providing a diesel rebate for all the fuel operators are burning to power their infrastructure.

This echoes calls from several other industries to exempt them from taxes on diesel.

“Our members have been forced to reallocate their annual expenditure to deal with load-shedding, which is unsustainable in the long term given the high cost of diesel,” ACT stated.

ACT also asked government to force the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition to urgently publish block exemption regulations allowing competitors to coordinate on load-shedding solutions.

Examples include collaborating on sharing power sources and security on colocated sites.

Security at their base stations is a major concern for mobile operators, as criminals are constantly plundering them for batteries and copper cables.

MTN said in March that the issue was no longer just a challenge but had developed into a crisis.

It asked for increased penalties for economic sabotage of physical infrastructure, including fines and prison sentences, to deter criminals and syndicates.

“The economic sabotage of physical infrastructure continues to have a significant impact on mobile network operators in South Africa,” ACT stated.

“Theft and vandalism of telecommunications infrastructure, such as towers, base stations, and fibre optic cables, compounds the disruption of network coverage and service, resulting in loss of revenue for the economy as a whole as well as the MNOs.”

ACT also called on government to designate the industry in terms of The Critical Infrastructure Protection Act and acknowledge its importance as a national strategic asset that society relies heavily on.

This would also help ensure that infrastructure vandalism and theft are prioritised.

The association also asked for temporary spectrum that would allow operators to increase their network capacity.

It also asked that government relax regulatory obligations that are arduous to comply with in the current environment.

Although it didn’t name the specific regulations, their new spectrum licences obligate operators to provide wholesale access to their networks on specific commercial terms.

Regulations also stipulate certain minimum levels of network quality, which MyBroadband’s testing has revealed several operators fail in some areas.

ACT also asked that its members be given more warning when there would be significant changes in load-shedding stages so that operators can plan better and effectively mobilize resources such as generators.

It is unclear whether there is a practical way for Eskom and its System Operator to do anything about this request.

Significant changes in load-shedding usually occur when something unforeseen happens, and the System Operator has to take steps to ensure the stability of South Africa’s electric grid.

“As an industry association, we call on all relevant authorities to take urgent and decisive action,” ACT stated.

Now read: Icasa plans to hold spectrum auction in early 2024

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Network operators ask for diesel rebate and relaxed competition rules over load-shedding