Technology · June 23, 2022

Vodacom spends over a billion rand every year to tackle its biggest problem

When it comes to maintaining a reliable cellular network connection, load shedding has proven to be Vodacom’s biggest problem.

The CEO of South Africa’s largest network, Shameel Joosub, said rotational power outages were its biggest operational challenge.

Cell towers require electricity to power the devices that transmit and receive radio waves that transmit the cellular connection to subscribers.

When a specific area is affected by load shedding, the towers typically fall back to battery power or generators for larger stations to keep customers connected.

The backup batteries needed to power towers aren’t cheap, and they’re an attractive target for thieves.

In addition, they require sufficient periods of electricity from Eskom’s grid (or from solar energy at selected locations) to recharge for the next load shedding.

Mobile networks have to spend significant sums of money on the purchase and installation of batteries and their backup.

These include elaborate measures such as concrete and steel cages and paying private security guards to patrol and respond to incidents.

battery bunker head
A steel bunker protects the mobile backup batteries

In response to questions from MyBroadband during Vodacom’s presentation of its full-year results for fiscal year 2021/22, Joosub explained that the batteries alone were a significant cost.

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

The CEO said Vodacom is trying to ensure all 15,000 of its towers have adequate backup batteries to keep the network online and customers happy.

“Building resiliency is the single biggest issue we have in terms of South Africa’s network performance today,” he explained.

“We must constantly improve the standby time. First it was four hours, then it became six hours, then eight hours.”

Joosub said hub locations are the top priority as their downtime could have a more dramatic impact.

He added that Vodacom would need to pour even more money into backing up the towers if load shedding continued or worsened.

“To be perfectly honest, our customers don’t want to turn off the grid. Often they don’t appreciate it when the network runs out of power,” he quipped.

“They want service and so we try to provide that as best we can given the constraints of where we are in South Africa.”

Shameel Joosub, CEO of the Vodacom Group

The problems of battery backup and security costs are not exclusive to Vodacom.

MTN and Telekom have repeatedly complained about the pervasiveness of crime at their base stations, urging communities to report perpetrators.

In June 2021, Telekom reported losing 7,841 batteries to theft and vandalism in a single year.

In November 2021, MTN said it lost about 200 batteries to theft every month, costing millions of rand.

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