Load shedding cell phone signal
(Getty Images)
  • The rampant theft of back-up batteries used to power cellphone towers during electricity disruptions shows no signs of slowing down.
  • Its effects are worst felt during prolonged periods of load shedding.
  • One of South Africa's biggest telecommunications providers, MTN, reports losing 200 batteries every month.
  • Vodacom records "several hundred cases of battery theft and base station vandalism per month."
  • Gauteng, Limpopo, and KwaZulu-Natal are hardest hit by the drop in network coverage.
  • Telecommunication providers are looking to renewable sources of power, but this isn't easy in urban areas.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

Load shedding leads to network outages when cellphone towers are stripped of their batteries. South Africa's largest cellular provider, by network coverage, reports losing 200 batteries every month.

As the country's power grid falters, with demand outweighing the supply generated by Eskom's ageing coal fleet, load shedding disrupts the economy and daily routine of most South Africans.

Mobile network coverage suffers during rotational cuts, with longer periods of load shedding diminishing coverage as back-up power sources, unable to recharge sufficiently, run dry. But there's an even bigger problem facing cellphone towers and the coverage they provide, which is only exacerbated by load shedding.

The theft of cellphone tower batteries, driven by demand on the black-market, shows no sign of abating. Towers without batteries are rendered powerless during load shedding, unable to provide any network coverage.

Earlier this year, South Africa's major telecommunications providers all reported a spike in battery theft and base station vandalism following the easing of lockdown regulations.

Vodacom said it had recorded an average of 700 incidents of battery theft and base station vandalism per month. Telkom reported an average of 650 battery and base station incidents per month. And while MTN said that incidents of battery theft dropped to 52 in May, it reported a 50% increase in copper cable theft.

The situation since then has shown little sign of improvement, with its most noticeable effects being felt during the recent bout of load shedding.

"MTN is seeing an impact to the network," Jacqui O’Sullivan, the executive of corporate affairs at MTN South Africa, told Business Insider SA.

"During stage 4 load shedding MTN has around 20% of the network faced with outages at any given time, in regions throughout the country. The regions that are most heavily impacted are Gauteng, Limpopo, and KwaZulu-Natal."

More than 800 cellphone tower batteries were stolen between June and September, averaging 200 batteries lost to theft every month. While towers are without battery or grid power, MTN deploys generators to maintain coverage. But there simply aren't enough generators to power 20% of the network.

MTN has already installed new batteries and enhanced security features at more than 2,000 base stations over the past 10 months.

"MTN continues to redeploy batteries and security features going into 2022, to continue improving network stability and availability," said O’Sullivan.

"However, there is a great need for more community involvement to help MTN and other networks, to stop these criminals."

Other telecommunications providers report similar struggles, with the total number of cell phone tower batteries stolen every month in South Africa likely to be double or even treble the losses cited by MTN.

"Battery theft remains a problem for all telco operators, and we continue to see several hundred cases of battery theft and base station vandalism per month," a Vodacom spokesperson told Business Insider SA.

The prolonged problem of load shedding has changed South Africa's – and telecommunication provider's – approach to the energy mix, with both looking to renewables. MTN has 30 off-grid renewable energy sites to keep the power on in remote areas, but metropolitan options remain limited.

"The challenge of providing renewable energy at base station sites that are located in the metro areas, is the space needed for large solar arrays, as our power requirements are up to 5kW per site," said O’Sullivan.

"Our current power backup methodology, is mainly battery backup with key sites having permanent onsite generators, while we deploy mobile backup generators where needed."

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