Loadshedding and your cellphone signal

When loadshedding was first implemented in 2008, precious few of us could have imagined that the issue would persist some 13 years later. This year and 2020 have seen the worst rolling blackouts ever, according to data released by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Due to significant problems with Eskom’s infrastructure, load shedding certainly doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon, and South Africans will have to learn to contend with not having a constant and reliable supply of power.

Many people might be wondering why cellphone signal is so markedly affected when load shedding strikes. There are two primary reasons for users experiencing spotty or no cellphone coverage when the power is off for long periods of time.

First off, back-up batteries power cellphone towers when the lights go out. While these batteries provide temporary respite for people looking to stay connected, they ultimately run out of power in instances where generators aren’t also installed. When this happens, cell signal may be interrupted.

As these batteries (which usually have a capacity of between six and 12 hours) require 12 to 18 hours to recharge fully, signal is severely hampered because they are not fully charged when the next round of load shedding strikes – a common occurrence during stages 3 and 4 of load shedding, for example.

Additionally, mobile network providers are being plagued by vandals and thieves who damage or steal the batteries used to power network towers. These batteries are valuable on the black market and, as such, some of the country’s biggest network providers have reported battery losses amounting to hundreds per month over the past year.

During a time when remote work has become the norm for many people, and a mobile connection to the internet is indispensable, the South African labour force is facing huge challenges with regards to load shedding.

To try and curb the effects of load shedding on customers, network providers are doing what they can. In November, Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub said that the Vodacom Group would spend an additional R500 million on batteries, after forking out no less than R1 billion on batteries and generators in the previous financial year.

Vodacom is also finding success with low-tech security measures that make it more difficult to steal the batteries which power network towers.

“What we have done now is go old school,” Joosub said. “We put epoxy around the batteries and put cut glass into them. It looks crappy, but it’s working. When they come with an angle grinder, it breaks the blade.”

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