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Fears about a national power blackout in South Africa remain – here is what will happen to local telecoms networks in this unlikely event
In January 2015 Eskom CEO Tshediso Matona warned that one unexpected event at any of its power stations could result in a total failure of the national electricity system. A failure which may take weeks to resolve.
Eskom later said the risk of a total blackout was overstated, and that its CEO’s warning was simply “the wrong use of grammar”.
Despite this clarification, concerns about a national power blackout in South Africa remain.
DA leader Helen Zille warned that a blackout would result in “catastrophe” and recent reports suggest that Eskom has warned Cabinet about the risk of a national blackout.
This raises the question: What will happen to South African telecommunications networks in the event of a prolonged power blackout?
Vodacom said it has been liaising with Eskom and has plans in place to best manage the various stages of load shedding.
“Almost all of our 10,000+ base stations have some form of battery backup which is typically good for 2-4 hours’ run time,” said Vodacom spokesperson Richard Boorman.
However, an extended blackout gets trickier. “All of the key parts of the core network do have permanent generator backup,” said Boorman.
A small number of critical base stations also have generator backups, and Vodacom has a number of mobile generators that could be deployed at key sites.
“Having said that, in such an instance it would still only be a small percentage of our sites that were still online,” said Boorman.
The good news, said Boorman, is that because the core network remains functional they would be able to restore coverage as soon as the base stations received power.
“The scenario of a longer outage has been considered but it’s very difficult to plan for – the capital expenditure involved would render mobile services prohibitively costly,” said Boorman.
“Even if there were some way to keep the entire network up and running for several weeks during a blackout, I’m guessing that the vast majority of devices (smartphones, tablets, laptops) would be long since out of juice.”
MTN said that its network is optimised for load shedding, but prolonged power outages would have an impact on customers.
“The planned power outages would negatively impact on MTN’s ability to provide connectivity to its customers, but the operator is working tirelessly to ensure that service disruptions are minimal,” said MTN.
MTN said it has designed its network to be self-sufficient in the event of power outages, adding that it has prepared its network for prolonged power outages by installing more batteries and generators at critical sites.
“We have entered into strategic partnerships with fuel suppliers to periodically supply fuel for generators that power our core network components,” MTN said.
MTN’s transmission network and radio network are powered by battery backup and, in some cases, mobile generators.
However, in the event of a total blackout MTN said it will not be able to keep the entire network live.
“We will endeavour to keep big business and high-density areas operational during a total power blackout,” said MTN.
Liquid said its network is built on innovative and technologically advanced infrastructure, and as a result it is prepared for any eventuality.
“Liquid’s Points-of-Presence (PoPs) and Mega Pops, which are the locations where the equipment is hosted, have sufficient battery and generator backups which can withstand an outage for up to 4 weeks – provided there is sufficient diesel available to run the generators,” Liquid said.
“Each generator can then operate uninterrupted for up to a maximum of four hours.”
In cases of a prolonged outrage, Liquid said it would implement its Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery Plan, which ensures that any eventualities affecting the business are addressed.
“The BCM team work a 24/7 shift and are able to respond to any situation, if and when the need arises,” said Liquid.
“Our data centres are modular in design with high energy-efficient technologies, which allow for the highest data centre cooling density. These cooling techniques will further limit excess power utilisation.”
Liquid said its customers can be encouraged by the fact that all its communication offerings are converged cloud services.
“In the history of the company we have never experienced an Internet outage as our five hubs are always on and operational,” said Liquid.
Telkom said its operational capacity, like many other enterprises across the country, has been impacted by power outages.
“We’ve always been prepared for power outages and this proactive approach has proven valuable during recent bouts of load shedding,” said Telkom’s Jacqui O’ Sullivan.
“Our core network sites have remained largely unaffected by the power outages,” said O’ Sullivan.
“We have sufficient backup power generation capability – in the form of backup generators, extended battery capacity and mobile generators – to maintain our network site operations.”
She added that standby generators, in strategic and critical core network sites, are equipped with bulk tanks.
Telkom said it may lose some network elements, which can impact customer services, when extended power outages are experienced.
“This is particularly noticeable where customers are connected to our access nodes and remote unit infrastructure, which rely on battery backup.”
A national power outage would certainly have some impact on Telkom’s operations. However, Telkom said it has systems in place to mitigate the impact of such an event.
Telkom’s Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery Centre would be activated in the event of a major disruption, such as a prolonged power outage.
“In such an instance, all activity in the organisation would be directed and managed from a central point to mitigate the impact to both Telkom and its customers,” said O’ Sullivan.
A number of elements would be taken into consideration when managing a lengthy power outage.
Diesel deliveries and availability of fuel to Telkom’s backup generators may be impacted.
Traffic congestion could impact the operator’s mobile workforce’s ability to fulfill Telkom services and its stores and retail areas could be impacted by non-functioning point of sale systems.
Telkom said it is prepared and will always endeavour to maintain service provision to its customers during power outages.
Cell C said that it has a comprehensive business continuity plan in place and its core and individual sites are well protected.
“The company’s network will be sustained during stage 3 load shedding,” the operator said.
Cell C added that it has agreements in place with the likes of Liquid and Teraco, both of which can fully operate off-grid. “These two operations act as redundancy for each other,” said Cell C.
Cell C explained that in the event of a prolonged national grid failure, only core network areas will be sustained.