Monday, 15 August 2022

MTN turns to crowdsourcing to overcome South African energy crisis

by Harry Baldock, Total Telecom
Friday 01 July 22

The operator said it would seek support from small businesses that own generators, using their power to help keep the company’s network operational

Widespread power outages have been commonplace in South Africa for over a decade, with the national energy supplier Eksom having struggled to meet the national demand for electricity during peak times since 2007.    Now, however, this energy crisis is deepening further still due to strike action from Eksom workers, forcing one of the country’s largest mobile networks operators, MTN, to turn to the public for help in keeping their network up and running.   This week, MTN has announced that it is seeking new partnerships from businesses throughout the country…

Widespread power outages have been commonplace in South Africa for over a decade, with the national energy supplier Eksom having struggled to meet the national demand for electricity during peak times since 2007. 
 
Now, however, this energy crisis is deepening further still due to strike action from Eksom workers, forcing one of the country’s largest mobile networks operators, MTN, to turn to the public for help in keeping their network up and running.
 
This week, MTN has announced that it is seeking new partnerships from businesses throughout the country, aiming to use their private generators to help power the company’s mobile network.
 
“There is no doubt the country is facing a power crisis but at MTN, we want to turn this crisis into an opportunity for small businesses by ‘crowd sourcing’ generators to further support our network,” said MTN South Africa’s CEO Charles Molapisi.
 
MTN has reportedly already deployed around 2,000 additional generators at sites around the country to help meet the energy demand in recent months, consuming roughly 400,000 litres of additional fuel per month.
 
The company has also been aggressively rolling out additional and more advanced batteries at these mobile sites, but the inconsistency of the energy supply from the national grid makes charging these units a challenge. 
 
“MTN has upgraded its battery back-up solutions on over 80% of the sites already this year and is currently deploying more additional batteries. However, MTN is still faced with the challenge that the current outage schedule does not allow enough time for batteries to charge,” said MTN’s chief technology and information officer, Michele Gamberini. “We want to assure our customers that we are doing all we can to maintain connectivity during this challenging time.”
 
South Africa’s power crisis dates to 2007, when, despite many years of anticipation from analysts, Eskom failed to produce enough electricity to meet the rising demand within South Africa, with corruption and mismanagement being blamed for the company’s ineffectiveness.
 
Since then, to avoid a catastrophic failure of the national grid at peak times, Eksom has utilised ‘load shedding’, essentially rationing power to various suburbs and rotating blackouts between these areas at prearranged times. The organisation has even outlined eight stages of load shedding severity, with each stage increasing the amount of power that must be cut from the national grid. 
 
In Stage 1, just 1,000 MW of the national load is shut down, typically resulting in three outages for residents over a four-day period, each lasting two hours at a time. But as the stages are increased, the effects become much more dramatic. Earlier this week, Eksom announced Stage 6 load shedding for just the second time ever, requiring the shedding of 6,000 MW and resulting in cuts over a four-day period for four hours at a time.
 
But with Eksom workers now striking over pay causing huge disruption to the grid, analysts fear that Stage 8 could soon be introduced, plunging residents into darkness for 48 hours over a four-day period or 96 hours over eight days.
 
If such severe measures are implemented, it will not just be mobile networks like MTN’s that struggle to remain operational, but other critical infrastructure and services, like, emergency services, hospitals, and schools. 
 
With the prolonged Stage 6 power cuts wreaking havoc with South Africa’s already low growth economy this week, the calls for Eskom CEO André de Ruyter’s resignation are already beginning to ring out in the media. Drastic measures will need to be taken to avoid a national catastrophe the likes of which even the country’s mobile operators – which had proved so resilient throughout the pandemic – will find difficult to navigate. 
 
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