Eskom, Connectivity and the Rollout of 5G in South Africa
Photo by Matthew Brodeur on Unsplash
The much hyped industry 5G, IOT, Fourth Industrial Revolution Utopia depends entirely on connectivity. Almost all 4IR technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots, self-driving cars, augmented reality, and the Internet of Things (IoT), require high-speed, always-on Internet connections. 5G will only work in places where that connectivity exists and above all is stable. We are nowhere near 5G rollout in South Africa and already we are struggling.
Load-shedding has a devastating effect on all mobile operators, significantly increasing operational costs associated with keeping base stations alive and protected, and negatively impacts customer experience. Operators are spending millions on emergency power supplies and security for cellular towers across the country. Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and Rain all agree that load-shedding is impacting their networks and pushing up costs.
Insights from Vodacom:
What happens to a cellphone tower during load shedding?
When load shedding occurs, a cellphone tower remains fully functional for as long as the batteries last or the back-up generator keeps running. Once power is fully depleted, the tower stops working entirely and, depending on the configuration of nearby towers, may cause a coverage area to black out entirely or for customers to experience intermittent service. Generators run on diesel, which means they can continue to run while being refuelled. Batteries, on the other hand, will last anywhere from four to eight hours before they will need electricity to recharge.
What would happen in the event of a national black-out for over twelve hours?
The radios would go down and the network would shut down. Our core facilities would still be up and our generators with huge fuel tanks would kick in but the radio base stations would start going down about eight hours into a black out and you’d have basically no signal. Vodacom’s key sites, such as transmission hub sites, have fixed generators that will keep the key sites up. We also have mobile generators which can be deployed in other key locations.
What are Vodacom’s back-up plans if the national Grid falls over?
Vodacom is doing everything it can to mitigate the effects of protracted load shedding which is having a detrimental impact on all mobile network operators. In the event of a national grid collapse, Vodacom can keep its core network up as long as it has access to diesel for its generators. We have plans in place to protect our key sites and continue to make the necessary investments to prepare for and manage the increased severity of load shedding as detailed above. Our core network remains well protected however in a time of crisis this would depend on the availability of fuel. Vodacom spends significant amounts on backup power solutions such as generators and batteries to maintain power to our sites. These costs are significant as especially in the case of generators, re-fuelling must constantly happen. It is accurate to say that costs have amounted to many millions of rands. Additional input costs and revenue losses amount to tens of millions of rands,” a Vodacom spokesperson told ITWeb.
Vodacom said their clients will not be able to access any services when backup power at their towers becomes depleted.
Batteries take up to 18 hours to recharge, and if electricity is repeatedly disrupted, it may result in network downtime.
Vandalism is adding to the problem – MTN spent more than R100 million in the past year dealing with acts of theft and vandalism, and had to deploy security teams to protect the equipment.
Jacqui O’Sullivan, MTN South Africa’s executive for corporate affairs: “These crimes tend to spike during load shedding when the lack of power sees substations being vandalised for copper wire which then further exacerbates the power supply problem.” O’Sullivan said the uncertainty surrounding load shedding and the duration thereof, particularly, puts additional strain on their network.
Cell C experienced similar issues, saying load-shedding also depletes the efficacy of batteries, because they are not given adequate time to recharge, which means battery backup becomes shorter every time.
“We have all put in place as many measures as possible with respect to the national electricity grid. However, even on days when load-shedding has not been implemented, operators face an incredible challenge,” Cell C told ITWeb.
“For example, on any given day, 80% of the alarms on the Cell C network are related to power outages or power-induced failures in various areas around the country. This already has a financial impact on the company, given that it needs to ensure that as many sites as possible are furnished with battery backup.”
Rain is the only company in South Africa to have launched its 5G commercial network ( February 2019). A public launch of its 5G service is planned for September 2019.
Wireless data provider, Rain, told ITWeb that load-shedding had impacted its services and it had to shut down towers in past days which would have impacted users.
“Stage four load-shedding can cause up to 10% of our towers not to be available at times,” a Rain spokesperson told ITWeb.
“Intermittent power supply is a huge challenge for Rain and the rest of the industry. Should it continue, it will significantly impact our ability to drive the costs of data down, as our underlying costs will be higher,” Rain says.
Telkom did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication; however, it tweeted : “As we embark on another term of load-shedding, please remember that services may be affected during this time.”
The Importance and Preservation of Landlines
It has come to the attention of EMFSA that the choice of landlines have been refused to certain communities, many of which are from a previously disadvantaged background. When a tower is down during loadshedding these communities are without means of communication especially during an emergency. The current scenario is all the more reason to preserve our landlines in South Africa.
Landlines are essential during emergency situations – a geomagnetic storm triggered by a burst of solar energy could overwhelm our power grid and shut down cell towers and communication networks. Similarly, a human-built electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon could temporarily wipe out the networks.
“The smart city will use mobile connectivity to provide new modes of healthcare, green initiatives about energy and resource savings, enhanced waste management, increased safety, easier access to knowledge and better governmental processes.”
It is important that the wireless networks, hardware, software and sensors that run smart cities are protected and always connected. Smart cities will be built upon a complex ecosystem of electronic devices and software systems (The Internet of Things, (IoT), machine learning and Artificial Intelligence).
Driven by sensors, networks and data-analytics, connected cities are centred on real-time information. To support this, sensors are deployed across a range of environmental conditions – for example in streetlights, smart utility grids, and chemical detection systems which provide vital statistics. Whilst these systems and sensors are intelligent, it remains essential to maintain connectivity at all times in order to keep the network on and functioning. Otherwise, these new cities will face device and network failure that could be have significant consequences for its citizens. If any part of the system is compromised, safety will be too.
If the sensors and associated electronics are compromised due to a unreliable electrical grid every smart city will need an army of engineers on standby constantly, ready to replace and repair the thousands of sensors and smart devices.
The quality and reliability of connectivity will become critical to the smart city. These networks must deliver what they promise – 24/7.
It is our opinion therefore that, considering the state of our electric grid, the planned 2020 5G rollout in South Africa is merely industry hype. Or as the Afrikaans saying goes: “Meer Bek as Binnegoed”.