It's down to the wire

2011-09-02 00:00

TRIED ringing a friend or a business in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands recently? Did their phone ring continuously, leaving you to conclude they were either out or had shut up shop for the day? Alternatively, after a few ring tones maybe a message kicked in saying that the lines were down and redirected you to a cellphone number.

And the reason the lines are down? Thieves stealing the telephone cables for the copper they contain. Howick, Lidgetton, Nottingham Road, Mooi River, Dargle, Baynesfield and Richmond have all been affected by cable theft over the past few months. Most recently hit was the Kar-kloof valley where residents have now been without Telkom telephone and Internet services for a month.

The theft of Telkom cables has had a huge impact on residents, businesses, farms and hotels, on anyone requiring good communications to facilitate person-to-person calls, accommodation booking, online ordering and credit card payments.

Farmers have been particularly hard hit. “We have been battling with this problem for months,” says Robin Barnsley, president of the KwaZulu-Natal Agricultural Union (Kwanalu). “It started in Louwsberg in Northern KZN — they’ve been without lines for over a year. Then more recently Richmond was hit, then Baynesfield and now it’s happened around Howick.”

There is growing anger and frustration, not only with the thieves but also with Telkom. “We have met with Telkom several times and its response has been totally unsatisfactory,” says Barnsley. “We have been told that if there is no economic return on an area, Telkom is not reinstalling copper cables.”

Michael Benson, who runs Benson Farms near Howick, has been badly affected by the latest thefts. “We have a large turnover and we use 10 or 12 telephone lines, including faxes. At this stage we are on cellphones. But sections of the farms don’t get coms for cellphones.”

Benson says he has had no formal communication with Telkom but has been told that it is not going to replace the cable as it will get stolen again. “That’s unacceptable,” he says. Alpha security caught the guys so this is no longer a friendly environment for thieves.

“I’m exceedingly upset, we run a big operation. I’ve farmed here for 40 years and have supported Telkom all that time.”

Hotels, bed and breakfasts and restaurants on the Midlands Meander have also suffered as a result of telephone cable theft. “With the Internet down people are unable to access our members running restaurants and accommodation venues, says Alison Kelly, Midlands Meander Association’s (MMA) general manager. “During the long weekend in August many hotels and B&Bs were almost empty, which is very unusual.”

Kelly says the association has sent a letter to Telkom expressing concern over the matter. “That was over two weeks ago but so far we have had no reply.”

This seems to be a common complaint from Telkom customers — lack of communication. “What is Telkom doing about informing clients?” asks Dargle resident Barry Downard. “We got an SMS to tell us the lines were down due to cable theft but since then nothing. There has been no communication whatsoever, but we still get the bills.”

Downard runs his business via satellite communications and now many others are investigating alternative options to Telkom. According to Kelly many of the MMA members are now bypassing Telkom lines by using 3G modems or other communication technologies. “But this means setting up new infrastructure and there is a hesitancy about doing this as people don’t know whether Telkom will rectify the situation. People don’t know when Telkom will replace the cables or if they will at all.”

How is Telkom responding when the cables are stolen? The Witness recently ran a story on a Telkom client in Richmond who contacted Telkom after his lines went down due to cable theft and received a letter from a senior Telkom manager, acknowledging that the high incidence of cable theft “severely hampers our ability to continue providing a copper-based service in the affected areas”.

“Thus we have concluded, considering the undesirable situation and search for an acceptable alternative, that we can only provide a service to you via our mobile network in an attempt to provide you with an acceptable level of service.”

The letter directs the client to various Telkom mobile packages offered via its 8.ta network. Implicit in the letter is that the copper line service will not be renewed.

Benson, for one, finds such a response unacceptable. “We are living in a modern technological country,” he says. “It’s unacceptable to say because cable is being stolen you have to get by using satellite. It’s slow and it’s not what we want for our set-up. The local cell tower here is only 2G, so things are quite slow.”

If Telkom can’t or won’t step up to the plate other companies are going for the commercial gap — communications service providers such as Bundunet, Wandata and Jireh.

Jireh Technologies won the prestigious 2009 Frost & Sullivan South African Broadband Emerging Company Award. Not bad for a company that employs 23 people.

“Seven years ago we developed communications software for McCord Hospital and then for its satellite clinics,” says Jireh’s Hilton Sandberg. “And we suddenly found ourselves pioneering wireless communications.”

Jireh now has 102 towers in KZN — 103 when one in the Karkloof goes up. “We have 220 all over country,” says Sandberg. “They are 18-metre high towers so they don’t require environmental impact assessments (EIAs).”

But though there are alternatives to Telkom setting up new communications, infrastructure can have prohibitive cost implications. “Other alternatives are costly to get going,” says Benson. “We are looking at R100 000 to put something together that will meet our requirements.”

 

Energy Minister Dipuo Peters has described copper theft as economic sabotage and her department requested the law be changed so that cable theft can be classified as a serious offence.

The Department of Communications was contacted for comment on the issue but no response was received.

According to a statement issued by Telkom, “copper cable­ theft remains the biggest inhibitor to Telkom’s capability to improve service levels”.

So what is Telkom doing about it? The statement lists “various interventions”, including “alarming critical and sensitive cable routes”, employing armed security firms; “deploying various wireless technologies that are alternatives to copper” and, where feasible, burying cables underground.

“We battle with crime,” says Telkom spokesperson Pynee Chetty, “but our expertise is not in fighting crime.”

Chetty says there is a misperception that telephone cable theft only occurs in rural areas. “There are repeated cases of cable theft in certain city areas as well.”

“In some areas cables are repeatedly stolen. Putting them back simply makes it easier for the thieves to take them again,” says Chetty.

“If we can’t guarantee the sustainability of service it is a problem for us,” says Chetty. “So we look at alternatives, at different technologies to replace copper. But there are implications with regard to speed of replacement. If we go wireless and we have to put up towers (over 18 metres) we have to commission EIAs. From the network side the alternative technology must fit like a glove with the existing core network of a given area.”

The view of Pietermaritzburg lawyer Rob McCarthy is that Telkom has a constitutional duty to provide countrywide communications. “It is a parastatal and enjoys a monopoly at the discretion of the state. Therefore, it must supply a service. Considerations as to whether it is commercially viable or not do not apply.”

Barnsley is adamant. “Telkom has written off the rural districts ... Telkom has failed as a corporate citizen.”

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