Mobile operator MTN SA yesterday outlined how it was investing more than R1.5 billion to strengthen its network’s resilience and customers connected as it battled load shedding, site vandalism and battery theft.
The investment will see it installing solar power, batteries and generators, and enhancing security features at base stations to ensure improved network availability during load shedding, when many instances of theft and vandalism occurred.
Statistics showed that bouts of load shedding led to a spike in vandalism and battery or generator theft at network sites. MTN said, for instance, during the period of stage 6 load shedding last year there was a major escalation of attacks, and tower companies recorded a 250% increase in the loss of generators.
Journalists were taken on a site tour to Soweto yesterday to see a recently vandalised network site and a recently repaired site.
Jacqui O'Sullivan, communication and reputation management executive of MTN South Africa, told journalists that load shedding and vandalism were not just a challenge, but a crisis.
The MTN team explained that crime syndicates targeted sites and took batteries. Diesel theft was common. Then, once the site was broken into, a second wave of vandals further damaged the site, stripping it of copper and other materials.
MTN then had to repair their broken infrastructure and on frequently vandalised sites the firm was using technology solutions versus the old lock and key mechanisms to secure infrastructure.
And while all provinces were struggling, data showed in the Eastern Cape more than 390 sites had been vandalised since January 2022 alone, with criminals returning to the same sites over five times after each repair.
MTN and IHS, MTN’s tower sites partner, have a three-phase resilience plan, which is under way. IHS is looking at various hardening solutions such as concrete blocks to secure the batteries, concrete bunkers and high-security cabinets.
MTN South Africa CEO Charles Molapisi said: “The nationwide network resilience programme is aimed at warding off the negative impact and frustration caused by power cuts, theft and vandalism and would help enhance network availability and stability over the long term.
“At MTN we are doing all we can to contribute meaningfully to helping alleviate the adverse impact of this crisis on the nation, its people and the economy. This includes further progressing the roll-out of our network availability plan and aiming to have all current sites upgraded by the end of May in this phase of the programme,” he said.
He said in future MTN SA expected to be completely off the grid at most sites so that these problems did not affect the quality of its service. The group was currently engaged with a number of critical role-players for collaborative solutions on matters related to the potential of any extended outages.
MTN Nigeria and MTN Ghana had off-grid solutions, but MTN SA’s infrastructure was built to be on-grid, so the South African MTN team was in talks with their colleagues to get the best solutions going forward.
The group said, to date, the network availability plan had resulted in the upgrade of 3 253 sites by the end of February, with the May completion target likely to enable significant improvement to network availability in the second half of the year.
Molapisi said MTN was working to reinforce the strength of its network around the country to withstand the pressure and ongoing demand from its customers.
Close collaboration with the police and heightened security at sites was leading to more arrests, and MTN had started swopping DC copper cables with aluminium cables on masts at many sites, and suppliers.
“This is not just an MTN or mobile operator problem we are working to solve. This is an SA Inc problem that we need to solve together,” Molapisi added.
MTN said this problem was affecting all mobile operators and, with the sharing of sites by multiple operators, damage to sites could impact many thousands of customers, across networks.
MTN also noted the gazetting of a directive this week to mobile network operators and to the industry regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, on matters related to the load shedding crisis.
Earlier this month, in MTN’s annual results, it said power outage costs were R695 million, or 3.4%, of MTN South Africa's earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation.
“MTN welcomes the opportunity to further engage with the regulator in the coming month, in the best interest of the nation, as we navigate these challenging power-constrained times,” Molapisi said.