Theft is one of the biggest challenges faced by South African telecommunications operators. Criminals are not only causing millions in damage, their actions result in downtime for consumers.
Speaking to CNBC Africa, Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub said they have major problems with theft.
“We have lost R60 million this year to theft at base stations alone – people stealing batteries, fuel, and other equipment,” said Joosub.
Vodacom highlighted that cellular base stations are the only form of connectivity available to many communities, and when criminals target these base stations to steal diesel, batteries, and copper, they cut off thousands of people.
To combat theft at base stations security is needed, which is costly. To reduce this cost, Joosub is encouraging operators to work together.
“Mobile operators must find ways to work together, which includes working with the police to catch these criminals.”
Vodacom is also piloting a programme that uses hidden tracking technology and other security measures to trace stolen batteries and equipment.
“Our security team is using helicopters and specialist mobile units to track the stolen items so we can catch and prosecute the thieves as well as anyone knowingly buying stolen equipment,” said Vodacom.
Eben Albertyn, CTO at MTN South Africa, said MTN experiences an increase in vandalism of transformers and theft of diesel and batteries from network base stations every year.
“Vandalism of masts could have the devastating impact of crippling the network, leaving customers and communities without access to communication services because of extended downtime,” said Albertyn.
MTN spends millions each year replacing stolen and vandalised telecoms equipment.
“We have hired extra security personnel in certain areas where the practice is rife. MTN works closely with law enforcement agencies and community forums to combat these criminal activities.”
How criminals are damaging telecoms networks
A recent presentation on mobile network security shows the damage which is caused by criminals (also see: How criminals are wrecking South Africa’s telecoms networks).
Fixed-line network damage
Telkom is particularly hard hit by cable theft. For the year ended 31 March 2014, copper theft cost the company R135 million. This excludes the loss of revenue suffered.
Criminals are stealing many network components – copper cable, optic fibre, solar panels, batteries, diesel, generators, and even wooden poles.
To fight this theft, Telkom and other operators use information and intelligence gathering, combined with investigative work and securing of the network.
The company also uses cable alarms and response teams as the crime hot spots evolve.
Here are some photos which illustrate how criminals are damaging fixed-line networks to get their hands on copper.