Europe is preparing for a Shut Down of Mobile Networks this Winter

Business » ENERGY | September 29, 2022, Thursday // 13:37
Bulgaria: Europe is preparing for a Shut Down of Mobile Networks this Winter @Pixabay

The once unthinkable could be looming - mobile phones going silent across Europe this winter if power outages or the imposition of consumption limits or current regimes knock out parts of mobile networks.

Russia's decision to cut off gas supplies through Europe's key supply route after the conflict in Ukraine has increased the likelihood of power shortages. In France, the situation worsens with several nuclear power plants closed for repairs.

Telecoms industry officials say they fear the harsh winter will put Europe's telecommunications infrastructure to the test, forcing companies and governments to look for ways to mitigate the effects.

There are not enough back-up systems in many European countries to cope with major power outages, four telecoms executives said. This also increases the chances of mobile network outages.

European Union countries, including France, Sweden and Germany, are trying to ensure that communications will continue to work even if power outages eventually drain the batteries installed on the thousands of cell antennas.

Europe has nearly half a million telecommunications towers and masts, and most of them have backup batteries that can power them for about 30 minutes.

In France, the plan proposed by electricity distributor Enedis includes potential power outages of up to two hours in the worst case, two sources familiar with the matter said. The total blackout will only affect parts of the country on a rotating basis. Essential institutions like hospitals, police and government will not be affected, the sources said.

The French government, telecoms operators and Enedis, a unit of state-controlled utility EDF, held talks over the summer, the French government and the sources said. The French Federation of Telecommunications (FFT), representing Orange, Bouygues Telecom and Altice's SFR, has targeted Enedis for failing to free antennas from power outages. Enedis declined to comment on the content of the talks held with the government on the matter.

Enedis said in a statement to Reuters that all regular customers were treated on an equal basis in the event of extraordinary outages. The company explained that it had been able to isolate sections of the network to supply priority customers such as hospitals, key industrial installations and the military, and that it was up to local authorities to add telecom operators' infrastructure to the list of priority customers.

"Maybe we'll learn more about it before winter comes, but it's not easy to isolate a mobile antenna (from the rest of the network)," said a French finance ministry official familiar with the talks.

Telecoms in Sweden and Germany have also raised concerns with their governments about potential power shortages, several sources familiar with the matter said.

Swedish telecoms regulator PTS is working with telecom operators and government agencies to find solutions, it said in a statement. This includes talking about what will happen if electricity needs to be distributed.

PTS is funding the purchase of portable generators and mobile base stations that connect to cellphones to deal with longer power outages, a spokesman for the regulator said.

Italy's telecoms association told Reuters it wanted the mobile network to be excluded from any power cuts or power cuts and would raise the issue with Italy's new government.

Power outages increase the likelihood that electronic components will be damaged if they are subjected to sudden interruptions, the head of the telecommunications association, Massimo Sarmi, said in an interview.

Telecom equipment makers Nokia and Ericsson are working with mobile operators to mitigate the effects of power shortages, three sources familiar with the matter said.

European telecoms operators should overhaul their networks to further reduce energy consumption and modernize their equipment using more energy-efficient systems, the four telecom executives said.

To save energy, telecom companies use software to optimize traffic, put towers into "sleep mode" when not in use and shut down various frequency bands, sources familiar with the matter said.

Telecoms operators are working with national governments to check if there are plans to maintain critical services.

In Germany, Deutsche Telekom has 33,000 mobile masts and its mobile emergency power systems can support only a small number of them at the same time, a company spokesman said. Deutsche Telekom will use portable emergency power systems, which rely mainly on diesel fuel, in the event of prolonged power outages, it said.

France has about 62,000 mobile masts and the industry will not be able to fit all the antennas with new batteries, FFT president Liza Bellulo said.

Accustomed to uninterrupted power supply for decades, European countries generally do not have generators to sustain power for longer periods of time.

"Maybe we're a bit spoiled in large parts of Europe where the electricity is pretty stable and good," said a telecoms industry executive. "Investment in saving and storing energy has perhaps been less than in some other countries."

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