Vandalism could destroy SA mobile networks, warn Vodacom and MTN

Mobile networks are at risk from vandals. (News24)
Mobile networks are at risk from vandals. (News24)
Duncan Alfreds

Mobile operators Vodacom and MTN have warned that South Africans may suffer network problems as a result of vandalism on cellphone towers.

Thieves have targeted cellphone base stations to steal expensive batteries and diesel fuel used to power the mobile network infrastructure - especially during rolling blackouts.

Eskom announced an extended period of rolling blackouts as the entity struggled with maintenance of the electricity grid. During blackouts, batteries in base stations keep mobile networks operational.

READ | MTN beefs up security as battery theft threatens network coverage

Vodacom said organised syndicates are targeting cellphone network base stations.

"In the case of Vodacom there has been a significant increase year on year in the number of battery thefts in our base stations, with the average increase at around 35%," a Vodacom spokesperson told News24.

"For instance, on average 553 incidents per month are recorded where sites have been affected by theft or damage. We are also seeing cases where the site has been damaged beyond economical repair."

'Cost someone's life'

Cellphone signal lost.

Vandalism could have a negative effect on mobile networks. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

In terms of keeping the network operational during Eskom load shedding, the vandalism of network infrastructure can have a significant effect on mobile service, said the Vodacom representative.

"Each theft incident can result in the network in that area being down for days, and can severely impact businesses as well as anyone relying on the internet to study. It can also cause ecological damage with vandalism resulting in diesel spillage.

"We repeatedly see situations where people can't make emergency calls and are put in danger by these criminals and sooner or later these criminals will cost someone's life."

Load shedding was having a damaging effect on the MTN mobile network, said the operator.

The battery backup system required time to recharge and frequent load shedding compromised this.

"These batteries generally have a capacity of six to 12 hours, depending on the site category and require 12 to 18 hours to recharge," said Jacqui O'Sullivan, MTN SA Corporate Affairs executive.

'Repeated maintenance'

The operator spent R300m on batteries and added 1 800 generators in 2018 for existing sites. Money must also be spent on security guards for sites to protect them from vandals.

MTN in August permanently shut down 53 base stations because of theft and vandalism.

The operator said that 89 base stations are on hold as they await replacement batteries and other maintenance fixes resulting from vandalism.

"This situation leaves many South Africans without access to network services either because of downtime caused by repeated maintenance and repairs or in the extreme case of towers being terminated, where the regular theft and vandalism renders towers unsustainable. This impacts on consumers' access to emergency services, effective business operations and connecting with loved ones," said MTN General Manager of Network Operations, Ernest Paul.

Vodacom said it was losing millions in replacing batteries in its estimated 10 000 base stations.

"We are losing between R120m to R130m to vandalism and theft each year, with between 1 500 and 2 000 batteries stolen each month," the operator said in a statement.

Counter measures

While stolen batteries can be sold to power household appliances, some are stripped and sold to scrap metal dealers.

"In some cases, the batteries leave our borders to be sold in neighbouring countries. As for cables, it appears that it is stripped and sold to scrap metal dealers all across South Africa who are prepared to purchase stolen goods," the Vodacom spokesperson said.

The problem of vandalism affects all South Africans as data connections cannot be completed, and this could potentially put people at risk if emergency services in an area do not function correctly.

"Battery theft is a crime that compromises the safety and welfare of every South African, but it is not a crime that we can fight alone," said Paul.

Both Vodacom and MTN are working closely with the police to limit vandalism and there are specific measures being taken to reduce theft.

Vodacom is replacing its lead acid batteries with lithium-ion units which require an activation code to work once they have been disconnected.

Both Vodacom and MTN urged people who are aware of mobile network vandalism to report it to the nearest police station.

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