Vodacom spends more than a billion rand annually to solve its biggest problem

When it comes to maintaining a reliable mobile network connection, Vodacom’s biggest headache is load shedding.

Shamil Jusub, CEO of South Africa’s largest grid, said power outages are their biggest operational problem.

Mobile network towers require electricity to power equipment that transmits and receives radio waves that carry cellular communications to subscribers.

When load shedding occurs in a certain area, towers typically use battery or generator power for larger stations to keep in touch with customers.

The backup batteries needed to keep towers running are expensive and an attractive target for thieves.

In addition, they require sufficiently long periods of power from the Eskom grid (or solar power in some areas) to recharge for the next load shedding period.

Mobile networks have to spend significant amounts to buy and install batteries, as well as provide them.

This includes the use of sophisticated measures such as concrete and steel cages, as well as paying private security guards to patrol and respond to incidents.

Battery bin header
The steel bunker is used to protect the backup batteries of the mobile tower.

Answering questions from MyBroadband during the presentation of Vodacom’s FY 2021/22 annual results, Yoosub explained that batteries alone are costly.

“When it comes to power outages, we spend over a billion rand a year on batteries,” Yoosub said.

The CEO said Vodacom is trying to ensure that all of its 15,000 towers have enough battery backup to keep the network up and running and happy customers.

“Building resilience is the biggest challenge we face today in terms of network performance in South Africa,” he said.

“We constantly have to improve waiting times. First it was four o’clock, then it became six o’clock, then eight o’clock.”

Jusub said hub sites are a top priority because their downtime can have more severe consequences.

He added that Vodacom would have to invest even more money in tower backup power if load shedding continued or intensified.

“Our customers don’t want the network going down, to be completely honest. Often they don’t appreciate if the network runs out of power,” he joked.

“They want service and so we’re trying to deliver that as best we can given the restrictions we’re experiencing in South Africa.”

Shamil Dzhusub, CEO of Vodacom Group

Issues of backup power and security costs are not exclusive to Vodacom.

MTN and Telkom have repeatedly complained about how common crime is at their base stations, urging communities to report criminals.

In June 2021, Telkom claimed to have lost 7,841 batteries in one year due to theft and vandalism.

In November 2021, MTN said it was losing about 200 batteries every month due to millions of rand theft.

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