Load shedding could lead to network blackouts

FIFI PETERS: How’s your connection holding up during the periods of load shedding – from the calls you make, either normal calls or WhatsApp calls, to surfing the net and all that? Personally I struggle and it is frustrating, especially with the WhatsApp calls, but even with the normal way, just continually being cut off and being told that ‘reconnecting’ and the like. It is frustrating [for consumers], but it’s also frustrating for the cellphone companies that are themselves trying to make sure we remain connected, by spending a whole lot of money on stuff like generators and batteries to enable them to do so.

So we’ve got the CEO of MTN South Africa, Charles Molapisi, on the line to tell us more about his frustrations. Are you frustrated, Charles?

CHARLES MOLAPISI: Good evening,  Fifi. I think my customers are probably much more frustrated than I am. I’m focusing more on finding the solution to try and assist my customers.

FIFI PETERS: What has the experience for the MTN customer been like over this period of really aggressive load shedding?

CHARLES MOLAPISI: Look, when you have Stage 6 essentially the resilience that you’ve built on the network cannot sustain the availability of the network. In that case, then you end up having some form of network blackouts, and in practical terms that will mean that customers cannot connect, like you say, to the site of the tower to make a call. In a number of locations where we’ve had that, particularly under Stage 6 … we have managed this thing relatively well under Stage 4; but Stage 6, because of the amount of hours and the frequency, it really makes very difficult to even charge the batteries that you’re keeping on site.

So the team is hard at work. We’re working very hard to try and improve the energy mix on the sites. And I just want to assure the MTN customers that we are really hard at work to try and navigate this very challenging period that we face as a country.

FIFI PETERS: I read somewhere that you guys have generators all over the show, around 2 000 or so across the country. You are going through around 400 000 litres of fuel per month just to keep some of these generators operational. Is that true? It sounds like a whole lot of money and I’d like to understand, if it’s true, how much this is all costing you.

CHARLES MOLAPISI: I try not to go into details on the numbers, for obvious reasons in terms of the transparency of our numbers. But let me say this, that we’ve deployed over 2 000, and I think there’s a good chance that we might add more gensets on the sites. We put gensets not necessarily on all the sites, but we focus on what we call Harps (?), or critical sites, to try and make sure that those sites don’t go down, because if they go down they affect the other underlying nodes on the network. So we’re trying to address that.

But it is a costly exercise. I think every South African now understands that to self-provision electricity, whether it’s in the home or in a business or on the network, that is really a highly costly exercise.

And again, for us as the leaders of the organisation at this point in time, it’s finding the balance between availability and managing costs, so that you balance the whole issue of runaway cost versus availability. So it’s a very delicate balance that you’re working on.

FIFI PETERS: So … in terms of your batteries, not only are you finding yourselves in a situation over Stage 4 load shedding, so Stage 5, which we’re presently in, and Stage 6, when you don’t have enough hours to charge your batteries because for most of those hours the power is out because of the power cuts.

Not only is that your challenge, you’ve also got the challenge of theft. I see that many batteries are being stolen. Why do you think people are stealing your batteries?

CHARLES MOLAPISI: To be honest, that is absolutely frustrating. If we provision batteries today, tomorrow the site is vandalised. It sets us back as an organisation, but it sets us back as a country. Obviously we have a responsibility to maintain our networks, so we’re working with different security agencies to help us manage it.

But I would not want to speculate on the reasons. I’m sure there’s some parallel industry somewhere that is benefiting from this thing, because this is a challenge that’s happening on a large scale.

This is not an MTN problem alone, this is a general problem for many of us in the industry. So, again, we will continue to work hard to try and find ways to protect our infrastructure.

Also we have appealed to the government for support in areas of *** I’m sure we’ll make progress. When we are face with moments like this, I just want to say to MTN customers, and I think to South Africans in general, that we have to meet this moment. We have a responsibility to meet this moment with courage, with a solution mindset, and rather be the camp of solution providers than be the camp of stone throwers.

FIFI PETERS: A bit of an out the box question, Charles. What could ongoing and aggressive load shedding mean for the whole spectrum rollout, which ultimately is about lowering the cost of communication?

CHARLES MOLAPISI: We have rolled out  – we acquired 3.5, we acquired the 2.6, we acquired the 800. Those are the spectrum bands that we acquired some segments on. The rollout continues, except maybe on the 800, because there’s still a dependency there. On the 2600/600 we have continued to roll out.

So load shedding will not stop us from pushing for the coverage of 5G for South Africans.

We are on 18% going to 20% on population coverage on 5G. We have ambitions next year to continue to ***. But of course there is an element of a possible challenge and derailment to the ambitions, because of the balancing of rollout and cost. But we remain committed to the rollout of 5G services and 4G in the rural areas as well, to increase population coverage as we continue to go forward.

FIFI PETERS: How about reducing the dependence on the grid, because I feel ultimately that’s the end game. So I imagine that the situation right now is making that path look more attractive and making you want to run faster on that path. Is it, and what are you doing in terms of your own investments and your own energy?

CHARLES MOLAPISI: A very good question, Fifi. Let me  give you a quick example. We have onboarded a company called IHS to help us manage our site. Now I’ll give you quick statistics. iSAT [Africa] manages our sites in Nigeria, 16 000 of them; 95% of the sites on the network in Nigeria don’t have any grid supply and they are achieving 99.9% availability on the network. They do so through different initiatives. So the mix is different. We first of course do batteries, we do solar we do genset.

So, depending of course on the outlook and eventually the solution that will come or may not come, we will have to enhance the availability of our sites. There’s just no way we’re going to allow the situation to continue where we’re not able to provide service.

But you have to box very smart on when you do it, and look at the outlook for Eskom. But eventually if we’re not able to secure power from Eskom, we will have to find ways, like we have in many markets as MTN, to self-provision, and eventually be able to provide the service. So bring IHS in the market, they come with experience, they know how to move material, they know how to protect the sites, and we’re confident that once they settle they’ll be able to help us to solidify the network infrastructure.

FIFI PETERS: All right. As a fellow customer myself, with those disconnections sometimes, if you can do anything to minimise them it would be absolutely wonderful.

But Charles, we’ll leave it there, sir, for now. Thanks so much for taking the time. Charles Molapisi is the CEO MTN South Africa.

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