ISS TODAY OP-ED
ICT sectors flag risk of nationwide communication blackout in event of power grid collapse
Threats to South Africa’s ICT sector, which functions as the country’s nerve system, must be taken seriously.
Eskom, South Africa’s electricity utility, insists a grid collapse is ‘unlikely’ and that it would take an “unforeseen and sudden sequence of events” to lead to a countrywide loss of supply. Nevertheless, public and private sector organisations have been preparing for the worst by running scenarios and diverting scarce funds to source backup solutions.
Grid collapse refers to a total or partial interruption or suspension of electrical power supply, resulting in widespread outages. It could range from a province being without electricity to a country-wide blackout.
“Load shedding” or power cuts have been a feature of South Africa’s energy landscape for 15 years, as ill-maintained facilities are taken offline for urgent repairs or stop working altogether. As the duration and frequency of outages have steadily worsened, the prospect of a total grid collapse has grown.
South Africa is heavily dependent on fossil fuels for its power generation — for its mining and other heavy industry, and domestic consumption. The country’s transition to greener fuels has been hampered by capacity issues and powerful vested interests. This is in sharp contrast to other African middle-income countries such as Kenya, which uses renewables for 80% of its energy supply. Rapacious corruption, sabotage of power plants, and cable theft by crime syndicates all contribute to a dismal picture.
South Africa is not alone when it comes to the threat of grid collapse. Botswana experienced a temporary shutdown in May. In Pakistan, a major energy system failure due to power fluctuations plunged hundreds of millions of people into darkness for a day in January.
Despite an easing of South Africa’s rolling blackouts in June due to higher than expected power supply, July saw the reintroduction of severe cuts of up to eight hours a day. Many organisations and households are seeking to reduce their dependence on Eskom by investing in alternatives. For now though, many sectors, such as information and communication technology (ICT), still need Eskom in order to function.
Threat of total grid collapse
South Africa has one of the most rapidly expanding ICT sectors in Africa, due partly to urbanisation and the availability of cellphone networks. Between 2021 and 2022, investments grew by 17%, with coverage by 5G networks almost trebling, says the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa).
The sector is also trying to build resilience to any form of grid collapse. Cellphone networks, systems connected through the ‘internet of things’, banking infrastructure and law and order structures depend on a functioning ICT system. And that is dependent on power.
Icasa’s decision in May to establish a committee on the impact of load shedding underscores that intertwined relationship. But unlike rolling blackouts, which are planned and occur over short time periods, grid collapse is unplanned and can last weeks.
South Africa’s “communications system is completely dependent on its energy system,” says Noëlle Van der Waag-Cowling, cyber programme lead at Stellenbosch University’s Security Institute for Governance and Leadership. So a “single point of failure” manifested in some form of grid collapse would have “significant” consequences.
The telephone network is a good example of power dependence. South Africa’s cellphone networks rely on power, and have taken some precautions against a protracted outage by installing backup batteries and generators to support base stations. But this isn’t sustainable, argues Justin Hornsby, global chief information security officer for the Rohatyn Group.
“First of all, without a power crisis, those batteries are already being stolen on a regular basis. And what happens if supplies of the diesel powering those backup generators run low?”
Although he believes the likelihood of total grid collapse is “low,” prolonged power outages limit mobile operators’ ability to recharge batteries, so one could expect significant interruptions in service.
Telecoms companies are lobbying for the industry to be designated a national strategic asset under the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act. The law deems a sector critical if “it is essential for the economy, national security, public safety and the continuous provision of basic public services”.
Given the breadth of functions that rely on a robust communications network, including banking, health and law enforcement, the telecoms industry appears to have a strong case. Big phone companies have also requested a diesel rebate from government and permission for telecoms providers to work together to share solutions.
The banking sector also depends on ICT for mobile payments, cashpoints and ATMs. A situation where people can’t access cash or conduct payments electronically could lead to civil disorder as frustrations grow and people become desperate to access money, food and other essentials. Policing those situations could also be impeded by the lack of communications infrastructure.
A total grid collapse could also limit email access, as servers require electricity. Much will depend on where data is stored, argues Hornsby. If data centres have an independent power source, locally stored information may be accessible. In the case of cloud computing, limited connectivity could also restrict access.
Due to the prevalence of ‘internet of things’ technology, water and sewage management, healthcare and some manufacturing could all become casualties of a grid collapse. This involves sensors positioned on objects, or machines being linked to software and other technologies to undertake specific tasks such as the pumping of water from reservoirs, or connecting security systems.
The effects of a grid collapse may not be evenly spread in South Africa. Manoj Maharaj, Information Systems and Technology professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, believes a complete and protracted power outage would more likely hurt the private than government sector. “Government services, while claiming to be integrated, are really not,” he observes. Paper systems are still used across the country’s administrative bureaucracy.
Despite the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the rise of smart cities, South Africa’s status as a partially digitally integrated economy could be its saving grace in the event of a grid collapse. DM
Karen Allen, Consultant, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria.
First published by ISS Today.