Vodacom spending over a billion rand each year to tackle its biggest problem

When it comes to maintaining reliable mobile network connectivity, load-shedding has proven to be Vodacom’s biggest headache.

The CEO of South Africa’s biggest network Shameel Joosub said rotational power cuts are their biggest operational challenge.

Mobile network towers require electricity to power the equipment that transmits and receives radio waves that beam cellular connectivity to subscribers.

When load-shedding hits a particular area, the towers typically fall back on battery power or generators for larger stations to keep customers connected.

The backup batteries needed to keep towers running are not cheap and are an attractive target for thieves.

In addition, they require sufficiently-long periods of power from Eskom’s grid (or solar generation at select sites) to charge up for the next bout of load-shedding.

Mobile networks have to spend considerable amounts on buying and installing batteries, and securing them.

That includes using elaborate measures such as concrete and steel cages and paying for private security guards to patrol and respond to incidents.

Battery Bunker header
A steel bunker is used to protect mobile tower backup batteries

Responding to MyBroadband’s questions during Vodacom’s annual results presentation for the 2021/22 financial year, Joosub explained that the batteries alone carried a substantial cost.

“When it comes to power outages, we spend over a billion rand a year on batteries,” Joosub said.

The CEO said Vodacom was trying to ensure that all 15,000 of its towers had sufficient backup batteries to keep the network online and customers happy.

“Creating resilience is the single biggest issue that we have today in terms of South Africa’s network performance,” he stated.

“We are constantly having to improve the standby time. First, it was four hours, then it became six hours, then eight hours.”

Joosub said that hub sites were the main priority because their downtime could have more dramatic implications.

He added Vodacom would have to put even more money into backup power at towers if load-shedding continued or worsened.

“Our customers don’t want the network out, to be completely honest. Often they don’t appreciate if the network runs out of power,” he quipped.

“They want service, and so we are trying to provide that as best as we can, given the constraints of where we find ourselves in South Africa.”

Shameel Joosub, Vodacom Group CEO

The issues of battery backup and security costs are not exclusive to Vodacom.

MTN and Telkom have repeatedly complained about how rife the crime is at their base stations, calling on communities to report perpetrators.

In June 2021, Telkom said it lost 7,841 batteries due to theft and vandalism in a single year.

In November 2021, MTN said it lost about 200 batteries to theft every month, costing millions of rand.

Now read: Daily Eskom power cuts for South Africa and no solutions — because the ANC is in chaos

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Vodacom spending over a billion rand each year to tackle its biggest problem