The vandalism of cellphone towers is on the rise in the Free State, with thieves stealing batteries to resell them. Bloemfontein, Bethlehem and Welkom are the hotspots, according to the mobile company MTN. To date, altogether 69 incidents of vandalism due to theft of cell tower batteries have been reported in the Free State this year. This increase in battery theft has been identified as the cause of network connection problems. “This is a national problem. If this continues, people need to realise that they may experience no service at some point,” said Ernest Paul, MTN general manager: network operations.“A loss of services and network quality can range from a 2 km to 5 km radius to 15 km on some sites, affecting 5 000 to 20 000 people at any given time.”According to Paul, recent data shows that batteries were stolen from 733 sites across the country in April, with 1 127 batteries stolen in May, 884 in June and 903 in July. “Compared to last year, which saw 596 batteries being stolen in May and 764 batteries in June, it is clear that the problem is growing. Cell tower battery theft has been an ongoing issue, but lately we have seen a drastic increase in this crime,” said Paul. He said damage to towers and infrastructure far exceeds the cost of repairing and replacing batteries and equipment. According to Paul, 53 base stations have been destroyed completely, resulting in the termination of 39 in Tshwane and 15 in Johannesburg.“Excluding labour, the cost of replacing each battery is about R28 000, and the additional cost of vandalised infrastructure (such as power boxes and cables) at each tower could amount to hundreds of thousands of rands. “Some acts of vandalism are so severe that hundreds of towers around the country are at risk of being permanently shut down, putting strain on the network and potentially diminishing the quality of service provided to customers. The industry is under pressure to deal not only with improving security measures to curb the theft of batteries and vandalism, but also having to pay increasing amounts to replace batteries and repair damage.” Paul said the mobile company has already fixed 100 sites at considerable cost, emphasising that cellular companies cannot fight the rampant crime alone. He said the company has considered offering monetary rewards for information which could help bring criminals to book. “Greater community involvement and awareness can make an immense difference. South Africans must report cellphone tower battery thefts.” Members of the public can report incidents by dialling 086-101-1721 or 083-123-7867, or sending an email to email@example.com.