Teleco: ‘We all need to play our part to stop the theft of batteries’

2019-11-27 06:01
photo: supplied A cellphone tower box after the back-up batteries were removed.

photo: supplied A cellphone tower box after the back-up batteries were removed.

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THEFT of cellphone tower batteries, a crime that affects many provinces, remains a major risk and cause for concern for business in the country.

Cellphone towers are fitted with battery back-up systems to ensure that there is enough power on site to run the system for several hours when local power goes out and the mains go down.

During a recent operation, police seized a total of 23 cellphone tower batteries as well as cables from a home in Elandskop, near Pietermaritzburg, on November 15. The batteries were thought to have been stolen from New Hanover, near Greytown, earlier this month.

The seized items, to the value of an estimated R450 000, were found during a multi-disciplinary operation conducted in the area which saw the team following up on investigations into a syndicate that was allegedly involved in the theft of cellphone tower batteries at New Hanover earlier in November.

In speaking about the issue, Mthokozisi Ndlovu, a specialist from MTN, said: “Crime remains a major risk and cause for concern for businesses across South Africa.

“Recently, telco [telephone company] operators have been faced with a new challenge to contend with — the brazen theft of cellphone tower batteries.

“With power outages on the rise, these back-up systems become imperative to keeping South Africa connected to the MTN network, but criminals and criminal syndicates are placing networks across the country at risk.

“Batteries, which can cost R28 000 per battery and upwards, are sought after on black markets — especially in neighbouring countries,” he said.

Ndlovu said the brazen theft of these batteries “is an industry-wide problem and will require a broader initiative driven by communities, the private sector, police and prosecutors to bring it to a halt”.

“Apart from the cost of replacing the stolen batteries and upgrading the broken infrastructure, communities suffer as the network degrades without the back-up power. This is due to the fact that any coverage gaps need to be filled.

“The situation is even more dire with the rolling power cuts expected due to Eskom load-shedding,” Ndlovu said, adding that the loss of services and network quality can range from a a two to five kilometre radius to 15 km on some sites and affect 5 000 to 20 000 people.

On hub sites, network coverage to entire suburbs and regions can be lost,

“Although we have improved security and are assisting the police in making arrests, everyone needs to step up and report this [theft of batteries] before it becomes a bigger problem.

“While we are making strides in patrolling key sites and helping the police catch criminals, it ultimately needs broader participation,” Ndlovu added.

MTN has increased their security significantly and has achieved immense recent successes in the fight, but the battle is far from over.

“There is a high cost to customers and the network providers each time a battery is stolen. We have had to spend over R285 million on additional infrastructure to cover costs incurred by the damage to the cellphone towers.

“Initiatives like the criminal vetting of suppliers is already bearing fruit.

“MTN also plans to have full detection and monitoring on all base transceiver station (BTS) sites which will bring about full monitoring and protection. However, everyone out there needs to help in the fight — if you know something then tell us or the police.

“If someone is installing a battery commercially then enquire about where the battery was sourced from. If it has any markings on it, or may look used and doesn’t physically come out of a sealed box, then it could be suspicious,” he said.

MTN warned residents to refrain from buying batteries not supplied by a reputable supplier, adding that they often “find criminals selling these batteries on social media platforms like Facebook.”

It’s believed that the suspects use the tower batteries to power household appliances such as televisions and microwave ovens.

“This is an opportunistic crime and many of these batteries seem to leave the country — which is interesting as it means criminals in other countries are choosing not to steal from their own networks.

“We are making inroads, through a lot of interventions, but everyone has a role to play,” Ndlovu said.

Speaking on the seizure, police spokesperson Brigadier Jay Naicker said: “Police proceeded to an identified homestead where they spotted a vehicle parked on the premises. As the police officers approached the vehicle, the suspects fled into nearby mountains, leaving the vehicle behind. Police seized a total of 23 cellphone tower batteries as well as cables. The vehicle used in the commission of the offence was also seized by police for further investigation. The total value of the items seized is estimated at R450 000. Investigations are ongoing and police expect to make arrests soon.”

Report suspected battery theft cases to the Bidvest Protea Coin Hotline at 086 101 1721; via the MTNza Fraud Line at 083 123 7867; or e-mail anonymous@tipoffs.com

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