Criminal syndicates targeting South Africa’s cellphone towers

South Africa’s mobile operators are reluctant to reveal the providers and brands of the batteries they use to keep their networks online during load-shedding due to the risk of being targeted by criminals.

Criminal syndicates seek high-capacity batteries as they can fetch high values on the black market.

MyBroadband asked Vodacom, MTN, and Telkom about the batteries they use to keep their networks online during power cuts.

However, only Telkom was willing to give details on its suppliers. It also highlighted the risk of being targeted by criminals.

“We are not in a position to share specific battery brands as we would not want to be targeted by criminals,” it said.

“However, we source our batteries from suppliers such as Huawei, ZTE, Dartcom, and SGT Grintek.”

A Vodacom spokesperson told MyBroadband that it uses a mixture of lithium-ion, lead-acid, and sodium-ion batteries to keep its towers running. However, they said they could not provide supplier names.

IHS Towers — the company that manages MTN’s network infrastructure — said it doesn’t share supplier information regarding any of its sites.

Installing backup batteries and generators at cellular network towers costs mobile operators a considerable amount.

In May 2022, Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub told MyBroadband that the company had spent R1 billion a year on batteries alone.

He said Vodacom was working to ensure that all 15,000 towers had sufficient backup batteries to keep the network online during load-shedding.

“Creating resilience is the single biggest issue that we have today in terms of South Africa’s network performance,” Joosub stated.

“We are constantly having to improve the standby time. First, it was four hours, then it became six hours, then eight hours.”

Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub

MTN’s quarterly trading update for the three months that ended September 2022 — published in November 2022 — revealed that Eskom’s power cuts had affected its financial performance significantly.

The mobile operator reported service revenue of R10.15 billion, which was only slightly better than the R9.93 billion reported in the third quarter of 2021.

MTN attributed the relatively flat service revenue growth to trading environment pressures and load-shedding.

“This result was delivered against high inflation, rising interest rates, unemployment and unprecedented load-shedding, which negatively impacted the overall network availability and some business functions,” it said.

Theft and vandalism a major problem

Vodacom, MTN, and Telkom all told MyBroadband the same thing in one way or another — battery theft at their towers is a significant challenge.

In April 2022, MTN’s corporate affairs chief Jacqui O’Sullivan told MyBroadband that the operator’s security interventions had prevented the theft of 2,174 batteries between January and March 2022.

However, these interventions also came at a significant cost.

“Some of [the] actions taken include beefing up security significantly. Measures include hiring the private security company Bidvest, installing CCTV, cementing/hardening our battery storage and introducing cement and heavy steel safehouse carriages,” O’Sullivan said.

Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy said the company had ramped up security measures to prevent theft and catch culprits.

These security measures include:

  • Applying a combination of epoxy and glass around a battery’s housing to prevent criminals from cutting through the battery housing with tools such as grinders
  • Cementing the batteries in vaults and installing concrete cubes to house its batteries
  • Replacing lead batteries with lithium-ion batteries
  • Using the latest security technology to beef up security at its sites
  • In far-flung areas of our country, partnering with local community members and SAPS to secure sites
  • Working closely with law enforcement agencies and security companies to arrest thieves for prosecution

“The clear message that we want to send to criminals is that if you target our base stations, you will be caught and you will be prosecuted,” Kennedy said.

Now read: Uncapped vs large capped 4G deals in South Africa — best bang for your buck

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Criminal syndicates targeting South Africa’s cellphone towers