MTN says is committed to ensuring its customers remain connected as extensive load-shedding, combined with the brazen theft of cell tower backup batteries and copper wire, add to the strain currently being placed on network providers.
The operator said that the majority of its sites have been equipped with battery backup systems to ensure there is enough power on site to run the system for several hours when local power goes out and the mains go down.
“However, the high frequency of the cycles of load shedding have meant batteries were unable to fully recharge. They generally have a capacity of six to 12 hours, depending on the site category, and require 12 to 18 hours to recharge,” said Jacqui O’Sullivan, executive: corporate affairs, MTN SA.
An additional challenge is that criminals and criminal syndicates are placing networks across the country at risk. Batteries, which can cost R28,000 per battery and upwards, are sought after on black markets – especially in neighbouring countries, the company said.
“Although MTN has improved security and is making strides in limiting instances of theft and vandalism with the assistance of the police, the increase in power outages has made this issue even more pressing,” said O’Sullivan.
Ernest Paul, general manager: network operations at SA’s leading network provider MTN, said the theft of batteries is an industry-wide problem and will require a broader initiative driven by communities, the private sector, police and prosecutors to bring it to a halt.
“Apart from the cost of replacing the stolen batteries and upgrading the broken infrastructure, communities suffer as the network degrades without the back-up power. This is due to the fact that any coverage gaps need to be filled. The situation is even more dire with the rolling power cuts expected due to Eskom load shedding,” said Paul.
Loss of services and network quality can range from a 2-5km radius to 15km on some sites and affect 5,000 to 20,000 people. On hub sites, network coverage to entire suburbs and regions can be lost.
“It is an industry problem and it cannot be left to the companies to deal with alone. Although we have improved security and are assisting the police in making arrests, everyone needs to step up and report this before it becomes a bigger problem. While we are making strides in patrolling key sites and helping the police catch criminals, it ultimately needs broader participation,” said Paul.
MTN said it has beefed up security significantly and has achieved immense recent successes in the fight against theft and vandalism, but the battle is far from over.
“There is a high cost to customers and the network providers each time a battery is stolen. We have, for instance, had to spend in the region of R11 million to replace batteries at 100 sites in Gauteng. More broadly, we have had to spend R285 million on additional infrastructure to fix what was broken,” said Paul.
MTN said it also plans to have full detection and monitoring on all base transceiver station (BTS) sites by May this year which will bring about full monitoring and protection.