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Mobile network firms battle rising costs to combat load-shedding impact on cellphone towers

By [email protected] (Kgaugelo Masweneng)

The DA plans to confront the department of communications and digital technologies with a plan to stabilise mobile network services during load-shedding.

“These companies are incurring huge costs to keep services running for their customers,” said DA MP Tsholofelo Bodlani, adding she was concerned about the effect on companies’ bottom lines and future investments.

Cell towers, she said, are either equipped with batteries or generators, meaning when load-shedding occurs they remain functional for as long as these batteries last or the backup generator keeps running.

“It is worrying that, when the power is fully depleted, these towers stop working entirely and may cause a network blackout in surrounding areas. The DA is extremely worried about this as it will inevitably leave our citizens vulnerable and with no ability to communicate, especially in case of emergencies,” Bodlani said.

Commenting on the effect of heightened load-shedding after SA moved to stage 6 at the weekend, internet and mobile technology expert Arthur Goldstuck said attempts to avoid outages are costly, affecting the financial health of service providers.

“In the case of ISPs, they are victims twice over, as they are subject to failure of both their own infrastructure and that of their providers.

“There are several significant areas of impact. When power is out for much more than two hours, backup batteries start to die, and some cellular towers go ‘dark’. Second, the constant sudden turning off and on, with the power surges it causes, results in a strain on equipment, and therefore reduced lifespan and higher cost,” Goldstuck said.

SA’s two biggest operators are spending vast sums on backup solutions.

Michele Gamberini, the chief technology and information officer at MTN, said the mobile network company has upgraded its battery backups on more than 70% of the sites already this year and is now deploying more additional batteries.

“However, MTN is still faced with the challenge that the current outage schedule does not allow enough time for batteries to charge,” he said.

“Battery backup systems generally take 12-18 hours to recharge, while batteries have a capacity of about 6- 12 hours, depending on the site category. 

“Consistent outages therefore have a direct impact on the performance of the batteries, while consistent theft of the batteries means replacements need to be installed.”

Gamberini said despite having placed thousands of batteries at their sites across the country, the efficacy of those batteries reduces once the country passes stage 4 load-shedding.

“In addition to the battery rollout, MTN has also deployed over 2,000 generators to counter the impact of stage 4 (and higher) load-shedding.”

Vodacom has spent about R2bn on batteries alone over the past two years, to enhance power resilience to its base stations during load-shedding, a spokesperson told ITWeb.

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Source: TimesLIVE