Significant network disruption – One-third of Vodacom’s network experiences frequent power outages
Vodacom, one of South Africa’s leading mobile network operators, has revealed the detrimental impact of constantly elevated levels of load shedding on the country’s mobile networks. The Citizen reports that a startling disclosure disclosed that around a third of Vodacom’s network has no power at any given time. In other words, more than 9,550 towers experience power outages from Eskom or municipalities due to load shedding.
Over the last two quarters, from September to December and January to March, the average grid availability to Vodacom’s towers has hovered around a concerning 67%. This number means that roughly a third of its sites are without a power supply at any given moment. The most recent quarter alone saw a staggering 2,068 hours of load shedding, compared to 605 in the April to June period.
During load shedding episodes, mobile operators like Vodacom heavily rely on battery and diesel backup systems to ensure the uninterrupted operation of their networks. However, the battery systems struggle to provide sufficient power during load shedding stages above four, as there is not enough time to recharge before the power goes out again. Additionally, these backup systems become easy targets for theft.
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The adverse effects of load shedding on network performance have been noticeable, with users experiencing reduced coverage and connectivity issues. For example, Vodacom reports that its network’s so-called ‘R1 availability’ declined from 98% between April and June 2022 to 94% in the first three months of this year.
Load shedding also triggers a surge in demand for mobile data. Vodacom witnessed a 45% increase in data traffic during the first quarter of this year. This increase places additional strain on an already stressed infrastructure, leading to incremental difficulties as load shedding stages escalate.
In response to these issues, Vodacom has allocated an extra R300 million in the past year to mitigate the impact of load shedding, primarily directed towards diesel expenses, security, and maintenance. In addition, since 2020, the company has invested over R4 billion in backup power solutions such as batteries and generators, with an additional R700 million invested in the last 12 months alone. Vodacom emphasizes that sustained levels of load shedding have been disastrous for the South African economy and the telecommunications industry.
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To alleviate the situation, Vodacom is placing its hopes on a “virtual wheeling” pilot project, which aims to enable the procurement of electricity from independent renewable power producers. By overcoming the complexities of its extensive network, which spans over 15,000 low-voltage sites in 168 municipalities, Vodacom expects this initiative to significantly impact the country’s power grid and the optimal functioning of over 20,000 towers across the industry.
Fellow telecom giant MTN has also experienced significant challenges due to load shedding, resulting in a R695 million earnings impact in 2022. In response, MTN is implementing a comprehensive network resilience plan, allocating at least R1.5 billion this year to fortify its network against load shedding and theft. The project includes additional battery capacity, static and mobile generators, and the piloting of solar solutions.
Unfortunately, both Vodacom and MTN anticipate load shedding to persist at stage four and above throughout 2023, underscoring the urgent need for sustainable solutions to safeguard South Africa’s critical mobile networks against the disruptive effects of power outages.
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