Can Europe's towercos keep the lights on?
Is the European tower industry prepared for potential insufficient electricity supply as winter arrives?
As the Europe’s unprecedented energy crisis intensifies with the arrival of the colder months, many of the European electricity grid operators have not ruled out power cuts across the continent in the months ahead. Mobile phones, radio and television could become unavailable around Europe this winter if power cuts, or energy rationing knocks out parts of the mobile networks across the region. How is the industry responding?
How are networks expected to perform?
Towercos and MNOs are on the front line of maintaining connectivity, with SLAs between towerco and MNO and QoS agreements between MNOs and regulators dictating high uptimes. Both have years of experience in contingency planning and dealing with power disruption in difficult weather conditions... But this winter is like no previous one due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, electricity price volatility, reduced gas supply and the very hot and dry 2022 summer which has significantly decreased hydropower generation across the continent. In addition, the shortage in supply of electricity coming from France will directly affect multiple West European countries as France is Europe’s largest electricity exporter.
Methodology and confidentiality: TowerXchange spoke with several towercos, MNOs and vendors in the production of this article. As the topic is so sensitive, unlike most articles we publish it will be fully anonymised.
While some towercos manage site power, others outsource it to suppliers, and many just provide access to the power teams of their tenants. In all cases, TowerXchange has confirmed that preparations for extended outages are ongoing. According to one major European one, in almost all its markets site power is managed directly by its MNO tenants who are working on contingency plans to deal with possible prolonged power outages. Two other multi-country towercos have also prepared for various power failure scenarios. Suppliers of back-up power solutions to towers have also reported collaborating with local grid companies and the regulatory bodies of the grid to prepare for outages.
Accustomed to uninterrupted power supply for decades, not all European MNOs and towercos have back-up generators on site. And where back-up power from batteries is available it is available for less than 4 hours.
Towers in Europe have back-up power supply, mostly consisting of batteries and diesel generators, that lasts for at least 30 minutes, but the minimum reserve power requirements vary by country and so does the classification of towers as critical infrastructure. For example, in Sweden towers are required to have at least an hour-long back-up supply in the cities and four hours in rural areas, while in Spain it’s usually one or two hours for regular sites and four hours for more critical sites or longer autonomies if they are transmission aggregation sites on which other sites may depend.
Figure 1: Predicted power outages in a worst-case scenario
According to data from the World Bank, major European countries have not experienced serious power outages since 2019, and as such preperations have been stepped up significantly only this year.
Following a power system stress test to examine the security of the grid, Germany has decided to keep two nuclear power plants on standby until next spring to prevent an energy shortage, despite its plan to phase out the power source by the end of this year.
In addition to having implemented energy savings measures to reduce overall energy consumption in public buildings, places of interest, etc., some countries such as France, Germany and Sweden are working to ensure communications can continue even if power cuts end up exhausting batteries’ back-up. In Sweden and Germany telecommunications networks are critical infrastructure.
In France, the infrastructure of the four MNOs — Orange, Bouygues Telecom, SFR and Free represents 1% of the country's total electricity consumption. While in mountainous regions towers have backup diesel generators, France's 56,000 plus towers are not all equipped with batteries and should any electricity supply be cut off communications in the affected area will become unavailable.
In the UK, to save power, telecom companies are using software to optimise traffic flow, make towers “sleep” when not in use and switch off different spectrum bands. This will help reduce the overall draw of the sites, but will be of limited utility in national or regional blackouts.
In the Nordics, the authorities have not communicated any official plans for how to prioritise or ration power supply in case of prolonged outage, however one towerco we spoke with believes that critical communications infrastructure will be prioritised. It has provided a minimum 2 hours of back-up at its sites. Critical sites and sites serving vulnerable communities of this towerco have longer back-up solutions installed.
Due to the robust power grid in the Nordics, only critical sites have diesel gensets as back-up. All sites have battery backups, only a few sites are on other renewable sources like solar. SLAs with tower tenants do not include contracted availability, outside the requirement of 2 hours of battery back-up power. Another towerco present in multiple countries has said it should be able to maintain a basic coverage of 95% or more during power outages but its KPI’s will degrade significantly. The impact on towerco finances from service degradation will be affected by details of the SLA signed between towerco and tenant as much as the installation of equipment or grid conditions.
In South and Central Europe, one towerco told TowerXchange that power at their sites is managed directly by the MNOs and back-up is secured by batteries which have an autonomy of at least one hour. However, these kinds of batteries are conceived to handle micro-outages rather than a complete grid outage, and high demand on sites might drain them more quickly. The management of any power outage depends on the extent of the outage. For example, if only a certain area is affected, mobile operators may be able to divert traffic and continue to provide service through other sites or reduce the transmitting power of equipment to reduce their energy consumption.
The overall picture is one which nobody wants. Towercos and MNOs are working to deploy improved back up technologies across their networks, but 100,000s of sites will continue to lack the back-up to manage full outages. If grid power outages can be restricted to load shedding or brown outs then it is likely that MNOs will be able to keep a network operational at reduced capacity; but large-scale outages at the grid level will be matched, in a matter of hours, by outages on the cell network.
What could happen longer-term with European networks?
The European Telecommunications Network Operators (ETNO) and European Emergency Number Association (EENA) have published a statement expressing concern over the expected power outages and have sent a letter to the European Union asking it to step in and ensure that reasonable measures will be taken to ensure that emergency calls and telecoms infrastructure will be accessible in cases of prolonged outages as the networks are going to be put to the test this winter. It also requests that longer-term solutions be implemented across the continent instead of conventional back-up power at the towers.
TowerXchange have spoken with towercos who are currently working on finding solutions to replace polluting back-up systems such as diesel generators or to power rural and semi-rural sites where either no power is available or where it is too costly to deploy conventional power grids.
An industry supplier working with towercos to ensure back-up power at their sites in Europe, has said that lessons could be learnt from other continents such as Africa where power outages are more common, and measures are implemented to optimise power consumption and have long-running back-up supplies.
One energy solutions provider suggested that making the transition from lead acid batteries to lithium ion batteries as back-up power at sites could be another solution - it’s a more versatile and sustainable technology that saves costs in the longer term and reduces emissions. The improved power density can allow sites to be kept online for longer.
Another simple and efficient cost reduction measure for towercos could be to implement deep cycle discharge batteries designed for peak load condition.
The potential power outages that may occur this coming winter across the continent are recognised, appreciated, and countermeasures are being taken by towercos and MNOs to minimise their impact on telecommunications infrastructures. Each country's approach to this situation is different but the sector is used to managing and implementing contingency plans so it delivers connectivity to the wider population.