If you’ve been struggling with poor cell phone network during load shedding, you’re not alone. Cell phone companies claim that because of stage three and four load shedding they have been struggling to keep their towers running efficiently.
According to MTN, Vodacom and Cell C – South Africa’s three major network providers – thanks to rolling blackouts their towers have been forced to rely on back-up power systems (generators) to continue operating when there’s no electricity from the grid. These generators are primarily battery-powered, but some may run on diesel.
“The frequency of load shedding is resulting in batteries not having enough time to recharge,” said Jacqui O’Sullivan, MTN South Africa’s executive for corporate affairs.
“These batteries generally have a capacity of six to 12 hours, depending on the site category and require 12 to 18 hours to recharge, which in stage three and four load shedding is simply not happening.”
Vodacom has generators at most of their towers but states that they cannot provide back-up power for all of them.
“It is not feasible logistically and from a cost perspective to install a generator at every single cell phone tower,” said a Vodacom spokesperson.
Candice Jones, the senior manager of external communications at Cell C, says that load shedding also wears the batteries down over time.
“Load shedding depletes the efficacy of batteries because they are not given adequate time to recharge, which means that battery backup becomes shorter every time,” she said.
According to Chris Yelland, one of the country’s leading energy journalists, the end result is that the battery will eventually run flat.
“If the battery discharges quicker than it charges, it will eventually be depleted,” he says.
Yelland says cell phone companies should be regularly replacing the run-down batteries.
“They should have systems where they monitor the battery performance remotely and it sounds an alarm to say ‘this and that battery is now not up to scratch any more’. That would be the good and right way to do things, but not always do the good and right things happen,” he said.
For MTN and Cell C, theft is allegedly another issue hindering them from providing signal.
“A significant additional cost of the load shedding is the extra on-site security that is needed to protect the batteries, generators and general site equipment from thieves and vandals. Network operators across the country have been battling sophisticated syndicates that have been stealing batteries daily. However, load shedding is seeing entire neighbourhoods cloaked in darkness at predictable times, which is offering criminals greater cover for their thieving,” said O’Sullivan.
Cell C has seen a 10-15% increase in vandalism at their tower sites, predominantly during blackouts.
Beyond the effect on towers, consumers, especially those on limited data bundles are being hit hard by the signal loss. In the event that the network cuts, prepaid customers using hourly data bundles (for example) will lose out on their purchase.
According to Koketso Moeti, the founding executive director of amandla.mobi, this is unfair on consumers, especially those who are in a lower income bracket.
“So just imagine, you’ve bought an hour bundle, you’ve spent your last cents on buying it. There’s load shedding and your network goes for the next two hours or so. By the time it comes back, your bundle has expired. That is completely unfair,” she said.
MTN and Cell C are not refunding customers who have lost out on limited bundles due to load shedding. Vodacom had not specified whether it will be reimbursing customers or not.
O’Sullivan says MTN cannot “verify customer’s claims of unused data during load shedding” and therefore cannot promise to pay them back.
Cell C on the other hand has advised users to work around the load shedding schedule and “plan accordingly,” said Jones.
According to Lazola Kati, Right2Know’s communication rights focus organiser, this lack of access to network is infringing on citizen’s rights.
“Right2Know has stated for a very long time that the right to communicate is a fundamental right, with many consumers using their cell phones as primary contact devices. The network being off or cutting is a direct violation of the above mentioned basic right. There needs to be a strategic and stern approach to avoid such situations as many consumers miss job interview calls and emergency calls,” she said.
Kati also feels that cell phone networks have no excuse and should be ensuring that consumers get their money’s worth.
“Service providers are paid by the consumer for the services they provide therefore consumers should get the full service no matter what the context is,” she said. DM