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MTN pours billions more into network to boost resilience to Eskom’s rolling blackouts

MTN pours billions more into network to boost resilience to Eskom’s rolling blackouts
MTN Group CEO Ralph Mupita. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The company is set to conclude large investments, relating to making its network more resilient during Eskom blackouts, in the first quarter of 2024. This infers that past investments into alternative electricity measures will have to carry MTN’s network going forward.

MTN pumped billions of rands more into its telecommunications network in 2023 to make it more resilient to, among other crippling events, Eskom blackouts. 

It invested R10.1-billion in its network in 2023 — a year in which South Africa faced levels of blackouts unprecedented in the 16 years that the country has been energy insecure.

During the period, MTN’s overall investments into its network topped the R10-billion mark, of which R2.6-billion went into initiatives aimed at averting communications blackouts when load shedding strikes. 

In 2022, it poured R6.6-billion into its overall capital expenditure programme to improve and make its network resilient. As blackouts intensified in recent years, MTN, Vodacom and other telecommunications companies have been forced to pour more money into making their networks resilient.

In doing so, the telecommunications companies invested billions of rands in solar power, generators and lithium batteries to keep their cellphone towers running during blackouts. The cellphone towers, which are critical for mobile and internet connectivity, depend on a stable electricity supply to function efficiently. 

By spending billions of rands on backup electricity measures, telecommunications companies have sacrificed generating higher profits to ensure that their customers are connected even in the face of intensified blackouts. The huge sums of money spent on fitting cellphone towers with backup electricity measures could have been used to expand their operations and, in turn, improve earnings. 

But MTN Group CEO Ralph Mupita said the sacrifice of profits had been worth it as its telecommunications network was mostly available and reliable during Eskom blackouts. 

Mupita said investment in MTN’s network also enabled it to improve its average network availability — a measure of reliability in the face of disruptions, including blackouts — to 95% by December 2023, from just above 90% six months earlier. This means that MTN customers face fewer disruptions to their network connectivity during rolling blackouts.

Mupita said MTN had staved off the risk of customers leaving its network for rival networks in a telecommunications market in which competition is intense. 

In South Africa, MTN increased its subscriber base by 2.4% to 37.4 million in the year to end December 2023, adding about 893,000 customers in 2023.

Mupita said he expected MTN to conclude large investments, relating to making its network more resilient during Eskom blackouts, in the first quarter of 2024. This infers that past investments into alternative electricity measures will have to carry MTN’s network going forward.

MTN’s revenue mix

MTN’s financial performance was under pressure in South Africa, with the company’s service revenue (money it makes from things such as airtime usage and monthly access charges to its network) growing by 2.5% to R41.8-billion. 

How it generated revenue was a mixed bag. The money it made from outgoing voice calls fell by 12.%; revenue from data was up by 7.4%; while enterprise, wholesale and fintech revenues rose by 15.9%, 13.4% and 14.7%, respectively.

In line with industry trends, MTN generates a big portion of its revenue from data, which accounts for 47.8% of its service revenue. 

MTN’s biggest pressure point is Nigeria, the telecommunication company’s biggest market. At a group level, MTN’s service revenue grew by 13.5% (in constant-currency terms) to R210.1-billion, with Nigeria contributing more than a third of this revenue. 

During MTN’s reporting period, Nigeria proved to be a tough market, with the value of the country’s currency, the naira, depreciating by almost 97%. This resulted in MTN’s headline earnings (at a group level) falling by about 72% to R5.7-billion. The currency devaluation resulted in MTN recording foreign exchange losses of about R21-billion.

“The devaluation of the naira we saw recently was a shock to us. We had not anticipated the shock,” Mupita said, underscoring how volatile the rest of Africa can be for MTN, which operates in about 19 markets. 

Despite pressures in Nigeria, MTN rewarded investors with dividend payouts worth R6.2-billion or about R3.30 per share. MTN shares, valued at about R170.2-billion on the JSE, finished 1.59% higher on Monday. DM

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