When it comes to maintaining reliable mobile network connectivity, load shedding has proved to be Vodacom’s biggest problem.
South Africa’s largest network CEO Shameel Joosub said rotational power outages are their biggest operational challenge.
Mobile network towers require electricity to power equipment that transmits and receives radio waves that transmit cellular connectivity to subscribers.
When load shedding hits a particular area, towers typically resort to battery power or generators for larger stations to keep customers connected.
The spare batteries needed to keep the towers running aren’t cheap and are an attractive target for thieves.
Additionally, they require sufficiently long power periods from Eskom’s grid (or solar generation at selected sites) to recharge for the next load shedding period.
Mobile networks have to spend considerable sums on the purchase and installation of batteries and their safety.
This includes using elaborate measures like concrete and steel cages and paying private security guards to patrol and respond to incidents.
Answering questions from MyBroadband during Vodacom’s annual results presentation for the financial year 2021/22, Joosub explained that batteries alone come at a significant cost.
“When it comes to power outages, we spend over a billion rand per year on batteries,” said Joosub.
The CEO said Vodacom was trying to ensure that all 15,000 of its towers had enough backup batteries to keep the network online and customers happy.
“Building resilience is the biggest problem we have today in terms of South African network performance,” he said.
“We have to constantly improve the standby time. First it was four hours, then six hours, then eight hours “.
Joosub said hub sites were the top priority because their downtime could have more dramatic implications.
He added that Vodacom would have had to invest even more money in backup power in the towers if the load shedding continued or worsened.
“Our customers don’t want the network out, to be honest. They often don’t appreciate if the network runs out, ”she joked.
“They want a service, so we are trying to provide it in the best possible way given the constraints of where we are in South Africa.”
Battery backup issues and safety costs are not unique to Vodacom.
MTN and Telkom have repeatedly complained about how widespread crime is in their base stations, urging communities to report the perpetrators.
In June 2021, Telkom said it had lost 7,841 batteries due to theft and vandalism in just one year.
In November 2021, MTN reported losing around 200 batteries a month to theft, costing millions of rand.