Power problems disrupt Africa's telecom sector

Rampant power outages are hitting Africa's telecom sector hard, and are likely to cause aftershocks in related industries.

Southern African Development Community (SADC) and West African countries including Zambia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Malawi face an increasing number of power shortages, affecting the ability of businesses to run base stations, data centers, computers and other IT equipment.

Fuel shortages in Nigeria Monday, for example, curtailed MTN and Etisalat services. The shortages also disrupted services in the banking and travel industries.

Persistent power shortages have added to the high cost of doing business in Africa, as most mobile phone service providers and business process outsourcing facilities are forced to use generators to power installations. This has led operators including MTN to increase investments in renewable energy technologies in order to avoid reliance on the national grid.

The power outages are taking place at a time when the region is trying to convince international companies to invest in the telecom sector in order to improve communications, especially in rural areas of the continent.

Many African governments face the challenge of raising funds to invest in power generation to ensure sufficient electricity to support the growth of the telecom sector.

According to a recent report by the African Development Bank, more than 30 African countries are now experiencing power shortages and regular interruptions in telecom services. Frequent power outages, the report said, means lost sales and damaged equipment.

Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) Executive Vice Chairman Eugene Juwah said poor power supply is a direct causes of poor services by mobile phone operators.

"The greatest threat to the growth of telecoms and information technology sectors is the insufficient power supply," Juwah said. "Only elimination of this problem will provide the critical success factor in finally eradicating quality of service challenges."

Nigeria is Africa's largest telecom market by investment and subscription, with over 140 million mobile phone subscribers.

Zambia's minister of Communications and Transport Yamfwa Mukanga, meanwhile, said lack of power from the national grid remains a challenge to achieving the plan of rolling out effective communication services to rural areas.

Many of the communication towers that have been constructed by the Zambian government through the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA) -- the country's telecom sector regulator -- to provide communication services to rural areas have remained unused due to lack of grid power.

"Power problems that Zambia and the region are facing may slow down or hamper the development of the telecommunication sector. We need to do invest more in power generation so we can have enough power to power communication equipment and infrastructure," Mukanga said.

The Zambian government has so far contracted Chinese companies to construct small hydropower stations in a few places around the country in a bid to mitigate the growing effect of insufficient power generation and transmission.

Last month, Zambian President Edgar Lungu commissioned the Lunzua hydropower station in the northern part of the country while promising his government's commitment to increase access to electricity in all areas of the nation so that people can start enjoying communication services.

Energy experts blame African governments for failing to liberalize the energy sector, the way the telecom sector has been liberalized, so as to encourage private investment and competition.

Michael Malakata

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