FIFI PETERS: From the calls you make, regular calls or WhatsApp calls, to surfing the net and everything in between, how does your connection hold up during off-peak periods? Personally, I struggle and it’s frustrating, especially with WhatsApp calls, but even in normal mode I keep getting disconnected and told to “reconnect” and such. This is disappointing [for consumers]but it’s also bad for the cell companies themselves, who are trying to make sure we stay connected by spending tons of money on things like generators and batteries that allow them to do so.
So we got in touch with the CEO of MTN South Africa, Charles Molapisi, to tell us more about his frustrations. Are you disappointed, Charles?
CHARLES MALOPISI: Good evening, Fifi. I think my customers are probably much more frustrated than I am. I focus more on finding a solution to try to help my clients.
FIFI PETERS: What was the MTN customer experience during this period of really aggressive load shedding?
CHARLES MALOPISI: See, when you have stage 6, the resiliency you’ve built into the network can’t support network availability. In that case, you’ll end up with some form of network outage, and in practical terms that will mean that clients can’t connect to, as you say, the tower site to make a call. In a number of places where we had it, especially in Stage 6 … we handled it relatively well in Stage 4; but stage 6, because of the number of hours and the frequency, it’s really very difficult to even charge the batteries you keep on site.
So the team is working hard. We are working very hard to try and improve the energy mix on the sites. And I just want to reassure MTN customers that we are really working hard to try and get through this very challenging period that we are facing as a country.
FIFI PETERS: I read somewhere that you guys have generators all over the show, about 2,000 or so around the country. You use about 400,000 liters of fuel a month just to keep some of these generators running. Is this true? That sounds like a lot of money and I’d like to know if it’s true how much it’s costing you.
CHARLES MALOPISI: I try not to go into the details of the numbers for obvious reasons in terms of the transparency of our numbers. But let me say that we have deployed more than 2000 and I think there is a good chance that we can add more generators on the sites. We don’t necessarily put generators on all sites, but we focus on what we call Harps (?), or critical sites, to try to make sure those sites don’t go down, because if they do go down, it affects other major sites are nodes in the network. So we are trying to solve it.
But this is an expensive activity. I think every South African now realizes that self-supply of electricity, whether at home, in a business or on the grid, is a very expensive endeavor indeed.
And again, it’s important for us as leaders of the organization at this point in time to find a balance between affordability and cost management so that you balance the whole issue of unsustainable cost and affordability. So you’re working on a very delicate balance.
FIFI PETERS: So for your batteries, not only are you in a stage 4 load situation, but you’re also in stage 5, which we’re in now, and stage 6, where you don’t have enough hours to charge your batteries because at for most of those hours the power is out due to a power outage.
It is not only your task, but also the problem of theft. I see a lot of batteries being stolen. Why do you think people steal your batteries?
CHARLES MALOPISI: To be honest, it’s very frustrating. If we install batteries today, the site will be destroyed tomorrow. It sets us back as an organization, but it sets us back as a country. Obviously, we have a responsibility to maintain our networks, so we work with various security services to help us manage them.
But I would not like to think about the reasons. I’m sure there’s some parallel industry somewhere that will benefit from this because it’s a problem that’s happening on a large scale.
This is not just an MTN problem, it is a common problem for many of us in the industry. So, again, we’re going to continue to work hard to try to find ways to protect our infrastructure.
We have also appealed to the government for support in the *** districts. I am confident that we will make progress. When we face moments like this, I just want to say to MTN customers and I think to South Africans in general that we have to embrace the moment. We have a responsibility to face this moment with courage, with a solution mindset, and it is better to be a camp of solution providers than a camp of stone throwers.
FIFI PETERS: A bit of a non-standard question, Charles. What would a sustained and aggressive load shedding mean for full spectrum deployments, ultimately reducing the cost of communication?
CHARLES MALOPISI: We’ve rolled out — we’ve acquired 3.5, we’ve acquired 2.6, we’ve acquired 800. These are the spectrum ranges that we’ve acquired some segments. The deployment continues, except for maybe 800 because there is still a dependency there. At 2600/600 we continued the deployment.
Therefore, load shedding will not prevent us from pushing for 5G coverage for South Africans.
We account for 18% to 20% of 5G population coverage. We have ambitions next year to continue ***. But of course there is an element of possible challenge and frustration of ambition due to the balance between deployment and cost. But we remain committed to rolling out 5G and 4G services in rural areas to increase coverage as we continue to move forward.
FIFI PETERS: How about reducing the dependency on the network because I feel like that’s ultimately the end game. So I guess the current situation makes the path more attractive and makes you want to run faster. It is, and what do you do in terms of your own investment and your own energy?
CHARLES MALOPISI: Very good question, Fifi. Let me give you a quick example. We have engaged a company called IHS to help us manage our site. Now I’ll give you some quick stats. iSAT [Africa] manages our sites in Nigeria, 16,000 of them; 95% of online sites in Nigeria are off grid and they achieve 99.9% online availability. They do this through various initiatives. So the mix is different. First of all, of course, we make batteries, we make solar panels, we make generators.
So, depending on the outlook and ultimately the decision that will come or not, we will have to improve the accessibility of our sites. We simply cannot allow the situation to continue when we cannot provide services.
But you have to be very smart in the box when you do that and look at Eskom’s prospects. But at the end of the day, if we are unable to secure electricity from Eskom, we will have to find ways, as has been the case in many markets such as MTN, to be self-sufficient and eventually be able to provide services. So bring IHS into the market, they’ve come with experience, they know how to move stuff, they know how to secure sites, and we’re confident that once they’re in place, they’ll be able to help us strengthen our network infrastructure.
FIFI PETERS: Good. As a fellow customer, with these outages at times, if you can do anything to minimize them, that would be absolutely wonderful.
But Charles, we’ll leave it there for now, sir. Thank you very much for taking the time. Charles Molapisi is the CEO of MTN South Africa.