Battery thieves and load-shedding hammering mobile networks

Thousands of mobile tower backup batteries were stolen from Telkom over the past year, while MTN recorded hundreds of cases of theft and vandalism at its base stations in the last two months.

These two major mobile network operators recently shed light on how load-shedding was increasing the theft of mobile tower batteries, and how the combination of these two elements destabilised network quality.

Telkom said that 7,841 of its batteries were stolen over the last year, which had a significant financial effect on its network expansion.

“As illustration of the impact of the problem, Telkom could have built about 35 new base stations with the money lost from battery theft,” the company said.

It expressed concern that the vandalism of network tower infrastructure and theft hurt the ailing South African economy on a macro-level, as well as a large proportion of the population that needed to participate in the digital economy.

MTN South Africa general manager for network operations Ernest Paul stated that constant load-shedding and load reduction outages had become an even bigger problem than the theft itself.

“Although the vandals and thieves have a direct impact on network availability and stability, load-shedding and load reduction, which has increased over the past five years, has emerged as the biggest contributor to our challenges,” said Paul.

The latest rounds of load-shedding placed MTN’s network availability under increased strain, as its battery backup systems generally took around 12-18 hours to recharge, while batteries typically have a capacity of 6-12 hours.

The load-shedding also plays into the hands of criminals and criminal syndicates, as they find it easier to access the infrastructure under the cover of darkness.

The theft of these batteries then makes it harder for mobile operators to sustain services in the areas where load-shedding strikes.

MTN’s latest data showed the total incidents of theft and vandalism of MTN infrastructure amounted to 378 in May, up from 312 in April.

Paul said while there has been a significant improvement in the reduction of battery theft, which was down to 52 incidents in May 2021 compared with 78 incidents in May 2020, copper theft was on the rise.

“Increased security and vigilance have reduced the theft and vandalism of network equipment and infrastructure during the early part of 2021 in regions like Gauteng and Tshwane, which have traditionally been the hardest-hit areas,” MTN said.

“However, this has been countered by increases in other regions, higher incidents of perimeter breaches and copper cable theft.”

MTN recorded 94 copper theft incidents in May, up from 63 incidents a year ago.

To mitigate power outages, MTN has aggressively rolled out battery backups.

Paul said that this also required the rollout of battery safes, as well as enhanced security access to its sites.

“It is a long process due to logistics and other technical challenges like activation of tracking devices on batteries,” said Paul.

“We have however seen a significant improvement so far and we have found ourselves in a better position during the current rounds of load-shedding”.

MTN said it has also sourced additional generators to support existing infrastructure and site output is being managed to further enhance efficiencies.

“Network coverage is lost if we do not have batteries, and because cases of vandalism, cable theft, and diesel theft remain high, we cannot let our guard down,” Paul stated.

“We call on the public to remain vigilant and join us in the fight by reporting all suspicious activity.”

Telkom also called on communities to act against the plague of theft and vandalism.

“Access to the Internet and the mobile telephony are essential services, even more so during the coronavirus pandemic, and the destruction of the towers destroys these services as well,” Telkom said.

“The result of a poor Internet connection, and often no calls, can negatively affect an event of a life and death situation.”

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Battery thieves and load-shedding hammering mobile networks