Truth behind mobile tower attacks during looting

South Africa’s mobile network operators have said that the impact of the looting and violence on their towers earlier in July was minimal.

Shortly after the unrest started, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) issued a statement that said 113 network towers had been vandalised in the country.

Many reports linked these outages directly to the violence, while some even suggested that mobile networks were prime targets leading up to the looting.

However, based on responses from mobile network operators to MyBroadband, most of these incidents were not a result of the unrest.

The country’s biggest mobile network operators — Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, Cell C, and Rain — said no evidence suggested rioters targeted their sites specifically.

Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy said there was no noticeable increase in the number of vandalised sites.

“The bulk of the base stations that were affected during the unrest are located in shopping malls in areas such as KwaMashu, Durban CBD, Maritzburg and Richards Bay,” Kennedy said.

“Safe to say, regarding network infrastructure, there was little damage caused by the unrest. At this stage, we estimate that the number of base stations that were impacted by fires at malls is between 5 and 10.”

“These base stations primarily ensure our customers can connect while they are in the mall, so we’ll make sure these sites will be operational when the affected malls reopen for business.”

Kennedy added there was little impact on network quality as the vast majority of Vodacom’s network was up and running in these areas.

Brookside Mall in Pietermaritzburg was on fire during looting sprees earlier in July.

MTN’s executive for corporate affairs, Jacqui O’Sullivan, said that the operator’s infrastructure at only seven base station sites was impacted due to malls being burnt during the looting.

Notably, no sites owned by the operator itself were hit.

More than 100 MTN towers experienced outages during the week of the looting, many of which were in Gauteng or KwaZulu-Natal.

However, these outages appeared not to be related to the unrest itself but were part of the typical downtime due to battery theft and vandalism which occur throughout the year.

“These towers were indirectly impacted as our technicians were unable to do regular maintenance”, O’Sullivan said.

All of these have since been fixed.

Telkom also said it did not experience theft and vandalism “above the usual” levels.

“Although we did experience issues with site access in affected areas where we detected service interruptions, it is a relief to say that no infrastructure was reported to be damaged as a direct result of the unrest,” Telkom stated.

“Service interruptions were mainly caused by electricity supply and transmission-related problems that we deal with daily.”

“These service interruptions were addressed remotely where possible on an ongoing basis.”

Where technicians needed to be dispatched, Telkom restored sites within four days, the company said.

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Cell C did not receive any reports of vandalised or damaged network towers.

“The last report of a damaged site was about a year ago in a specific community in KwaZulu-Natal,” the operator stated.

Rain — the smallest operator of the five — said there was no evidence to corroborate whether the vandalism it suffered was a targeted attack on mobile towers or if it was merely a result of the looting.

Its field teams have returned to work in affected areas in Gauteng, where the majority of sites have been restored, and KwaZulu-Natal, where damage was more severe.

“These sites are being attended to, and repairs are underway,” Rain said.

Now read: Tremendous damage caused by looting shown in one table

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Truth behind mobile tower attacks during looting