SA’s mobile operators are upset over the growing delays they face in having environmental impact assessments concluded for the construction of new base stations. They say it’s holding back the sector.
Cell C CEO Lars Reichelt used a media briefing earlier this week to criticise municipal bureaucrats for the lengthy delays.
“This is one of the slowest things you’ve ever seen,” he told journalists. “It’s easier to build a base station in downtown Zurich, in a 300-year-old building, than it is to build a site out in the [SA] countryside where there are a couple of hyenas and a toothless lion.”
He describes the bureaucracy involved as “crazy”. “This country needs communications and better connectivity, but you can’t even build a tower.”
Cell C is building a new national network as part of efforts to position itself better against bigger rivals MTN and Vodacom.
Under Reichelt’s leadership, the operator is spending R5bn on an advanced, third-generation mobile network that can be used to offer high-speed wireless broadband.
Karel Pienaar, MD of MTN SA, echoes Reichelt’s concerns about the delays in environmental assessments. He says they typically take more than a year. On average, it takes 14 months for MTN to put up a tower.
“It takes far too long,” Pienaar says.
Compounding the issue is that people have concerns about the health implications of cellphone masts, he says.
But Pienaar insists there are no health implications from cellphone-tower radiation. “Your standing in the sun for 10 minutes is a million times more harmful than having a base station on top of your lounge.”
He says the delays in environmental approvals are serving to hinder rather than help competition in the sector.
Big operators such as MTN and Vodacom already have thousands of towers, Pienaar says.
But new industry players like Telkom — which will launch a mobile network later this year — have to start from scratch. “I can imagine their frustration, because the problem is getting worse, not better.”
Even though MTN’s network is already established, Pienaar says it always has to fill in gaps in its coverage.
“There are some places we’ve been waiting years to put a site in to offer better coverage. There’s always a pushback [from residents].”
It also needs to provide new sites for the rapid growth in demand for data services. It’s also expanding its network in rural area, he says.
Vodacom says it’s experiencing similar challenges. The company’s executive director for regional operations, Vuyani Jarana, says it can take up to 24 months to receive the necessary environmental approvals.
Like Pienaar, Jarana says consumer objections, particularly from residents of Johannesburg’s more affluent suburbs, are holding back the roll-out of new infrastructure.
Bryanston, Jarana says, is particularly bad. Many residents of the leafy Sandton suburb complain of poor coverage, but just as many object to Vodacom’s plans to put up new base stations to fix the problem.
“We need to densify the network,” he says, “and we need more understanding from residents.”
Residents often object to new towers because they say they’ll be eyesores in their communities. Others are worried about the impact of electromagnetic radiation. “We build sites in accordance with World Health Organisation guidelines,” Jarana says.
“Increasingly, SA relies on mobile for broadband. We have the capability to build those networks but the processes are just taking far too long.” — Duncan McLeod, TechCentral