With persistent loadshedding and a rise in vandalism and theft aggravating SA’s fragile economic recovery and impacting service delivery, MTN SA is accelerating its network resilience drive with an investment of R1.5 billion into the programme.

CEO at MTN South Africa, Charles Molapisi says the nationwide programme is aimed at warding off the negative impact and frustration caused by power cuts, theft and vandalism and will 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 rollout of our network availability plan and aiming to have all current sites upgraded by the end of May in this phase of the programme”, says Molapisi.  

“The investment will see us installing solar power, batteries, and generators, and enhancing security features at base stations to ensure improved network availability during loadshedding, when many instances of theft and vandalism occur. In future, we expect to be completely off the grid at most sites so that these problems do not affect the quality of our service”. 

“We are currently engaged with a number of critical role-players for collaborative solutions on matters related to the potential of any extended outages. Our focus is on our people and customers, fuel supply, fuel movements, security resourcing and sustaining national and emergency services,” says Molapisi. 

To date, the network availability plan has resulted in the upgrade of 3,253 sites by the end of February 2023, with the May completion target likely to enable significant improvement to network availability in the second half of the year.

Statistics show that bouts of loadshedding have a direct correlation with the spike in vandalism and battery or generator theft at network sites. For instance, during the period of stage six loadshedding last year there was a major escalation of attacks and tower companies recorded a 250% increase in the loss of generators.

“Even during stage one and two loadshedding, which has a lesser impact on us as our batteries can still recharge, we still face the issue of vandalism and theft which severely impacts our network and service delivery,” says Molapisi.

“We’re working to reinforce the strength of our network around the country to withstand the pressure and ongoing demand from our valued customers.  Increasingly, South Africans are turning to the digital economy for work, business, education and entertainment, so the need for seamless connectivity has never been more important.”

The element of crime is leading to ever more dire consequences for the connectivity of people, the smooth running of small businesses, the effective delivery of digital government services, and the safety of individuals during loadshedding. This problem is affecting all mobile operators and with the sharing of sites by multiple operators, damage to sites can impact many thousands of customers, across networks.

While all provinces are struggling, the Eastern Cape is most affected at the moment. Data shows that over 390 unique sites have been vandalised since January 2022 alone, with criminals returning to the same sites over five times after each repair.

More than 1000 vandalism incidents have been recorded in the period in the Eastern Cape, with cable and battery theft, equipment, and air conditioner theft all on the rise. Other items damaged and stolen are doors, containers, fence, security systems and locks.

These trends are persisting across all regions in 2023 as load-shedding continues to provide an opening for criminals to operate under cover of darkness.

“Diesel theft, copper, battery and generator theft all mean extended periods of downtime as recovery teams work around the clock to repair the damage and bring in replacement batteries. It is also not an issue that solely affects the rural areas,” continues Molapisi. 

Another trend is that as the country hits persistently higher levels of loadshedding, the vandalism of base stations has shifted from opportunistic criminality (petty thieves breaking into the stations and sites to get what copper or metals they can get) to a more organised form of criminality being run by syndicates. They will at times disguise themselves as third-party contractors so as not to be confronted by local communities and take that opportunity to specifically steal batteries.

“The syndicate criminality has a knock-on effect on opportunistic criminality as after a site has been hit by a syndicate, and should it not be secured soon enough, opportunistic criminality will then also occur,” explains Molapisi. 

With MTN having embarked on a major rural network rollout drive, the protection of these sites is paramount and numerous initiatives are being deployed. For instance, MTN and IHS, MTN’s tower sites partner, have a three-phase resilience plan which is currently underway. IHS is looking at various hardening solutions such as concrete blocks to secure the batteries, concrete bunkers, and high security cabinets.

Close collaboration with the police and heightened security at sites is leading to more arrests, and MTN has started swapping DC copper cables with aluminium cables on masts at many sites, while a TX Ring resilience programme to protect sites across all provinces is on track, showing good results.

“To be part of the digital economy, communities need access to stable and reliable connectivity, now more than ever, we need to work with communities, government, NGOs and other corporates to make that happen. We have to collaborate to protect the power and network sites that connect our children to the internet for their homework, our elders to their social grant payments and our businesses to their customers 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 said. 

In this regard, MTN welcomes broader efforts to end criminality, including the government’s six-month ban on scrap metal exports announced in November 2022.

MTN also notes the gazetting of a directive this week to Mobile Network Operators and to the industry regulator, ICASA, on matters related to the loadshedding crisis.  “MTN welcomes the opportunity to further engage with the regulator in the coming month, in the best interest of nation, as we navigate these challenging power-constrained times,” Molapisi said.

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