Battery theft at base stations, combined with insufficient charging times due to frequent load-shedding sessions can cause mobile network towers to lose power, resulting in little or no cellular connectivity.
This causes frustration amongst residents who still wish to communicate when their fixed-line connections go down due to power cuts.
While mobile towers draw power from the electricity grid, all mobile network operators have contingencies for when their cellular base stations lose power.
These include the installation of battery backups at mobile towers, but several factors impact their ability to provide a reliable power source through power cuts.
Factors such as equipment theft at base stations and an inability for batteries to recharge to full capacity if the time between load-shedding sessions is too short can cause towers to lose power.
MyBroadband spoke to South Africa’s major mobile network operators about some of the problems they face during load-shedding.
Jacqui O’Sullivan, Executive for Corporate Affairs at MTN SA, said that rotational power cuts had strained the mobile network over the past few weeks.
“High levels of load-shedding and load reduction have added additional strain on the MTN network stability and availability during the last few weeks,” she said.
“Battery back-up systems generally take 12-18 hours to recharge, while batteries have a capacity of about 6-12 hours, depending on the site category.”
“Constant outages therefore have a direct impact on the performance of the batteries, while theft of the batteries themselves means replacements need to be installed,” she added.
O’Sullivan indicated that during Stage 4 load-shedding, approximately 20% of MTN’s network faces outages at any given time.
“The regions that are most heavily impacted are Gauteng, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal,” she said.
The theft of batteries at base stations has compounded the effects of load-shedding on mobile towers.
“The impact is far more significant due to theft and vandalism at MTN base stations, with over 800 batteries having been stolen between June and September this year,” O’Sullivan said.
“MTN continues to redeploy batteries and security features going into 2022, to continue improving network stability and availability.”
“However, there is a great need for more community involvement to help MTN and other networks, to stop these criminals,” she said.
A spokesperson from Telkom also indicated that batteries are unable to recharge during frequent load-shedding, adding that it is more pronounced at sites with lead-acid batteries which take longer to charge.
Load-shedding also impacts the cooling system at Telkom’s network towers.
“Load-shedding compromises our cooling system, which results in higher ambient temperatures inside our equipment cabinet, high temperatures compromise the life of batteries,” the spokesperson said.
A Vodacom spokesperson also indicated that mobile networks suffer during load-shedding.
“When electricity is cut to a cellphone tower, it will remain fully functional for as long as the batteries last or the backup generator keeps running. ”
“Once the backup power is depleted, the tower stops working and, depending on the configuration of nearby towers, may cause a coverage outage or for customers to experience intermittent service in a particular area.”
The spokesperson reiterated the effect that frequent load-shedding sessions can have on backup batteries.
“A notable complication with more frequent load-shedding is that batteries don’t fully recharge before the next outage,” the spokesperson said.
In addition to this, the repeated activation and depletion of backup batteries shortens their life span.
“Batteries are particularly negatively impacted by load-shedding. Batteries have a limited number of charge / deplete cycles, which means the more often they are called on to work, the shorter their lifespan,” the spokesperson said.
“With infrequent outages, a battery can last for five years, but with frequent outages due to load-shedding, this will reduce to one or two years.”
“We would like to reassure customers that we are doing everything we can to help mitigate the effects of widespread load-shedding, such as deploying generators at various sites around the country,” they added.