“This is a crisis” — Photos of MTN’s battle against battery thieves

MTN South Africa recently took press to visit cellphone towers that criminals had vandalised. The network operator wanted to show the impact of infrastructure theft and vandalism on its mobile network base stations and the security measures it had taken to try and stop criminals from doing further harm.

All of South Africa’s mobile operators have struggled to keep their networks running optimally amid rising levels of load-shedding.

The issue is exacerbated by sophisticated syndicates and opportunistic thieves stealing and damaging billions’ worth of backup power investments at mobile base stations.

South Africa’s second-biggest mobile operator told journalists that the issue was no longer just a challenge but had developed into a crisis.

In just one province — the Eastern Cape — 390 of MTN’s base stations were vandalised in 2022, some on more than one occasion.

With some sites being hit up to 15 times, the total number of incidents in that province for the year stood at over 1,000.

MTN’s tour took the media to two sites in Soweto in Gauteng, where the mobile operator has been focusing on improving its network resilience.

The first mobile network tower the media was taken to in Soweto. It houses infrastructure from MTN, Vodacom, and Cell C.

Firstly, we were taken to a site where thieves had recently struck and stolen various pieces of equipment and cut the base station off from the grid and battery backup.

At the time of our visit, power was being provided to the site by a large generator, which was fortunately not yet stolen by thieves.

One possible reason for this might have been the thick concrete block in which it was placed.

The only way an onlooker would know a generator was inside was to listen to it rumble, spot the exhaust pipe protruding from the top, or peer through its thick metal grating.

It would require some heavy power tools or multiple strong sledgehammer blows to get it open.

Large generator in reinforced concrete block.

But the primary target for the thieves was a steel and concrete vault in which five 5kWh batteries were stored. The batteries themselves were encased within their own steel container.

These batteries typically provide up to six hours of backup power during load-shedding, based on a regular load of 800W.

Their total capacity of 25kWh is near twice that of a Tesla Powerwall.

The estimated (albeit unconfirmed) cost of the batteries with their casing was around R300,000–R350,000.

Fortunately, the strong cladding in which the batteries were encased had prevented the thieves from stealing them.

Steel and concrete structure holding batteries in a secondary steel vault.
Battery vault ripped open by thieves.
Backup batteries encased in strong cladding material.

But that did not stop them from cutting multiple metres of cable running from the batteries to the radio equipment.

MTN has shifted some of its cables at base stations from copper to aluminium — including at this site.

Although this significantly lowers the street value, it had not been sufficient to deter the thieves from making away with almost every piece of cable they could find.

MTN Gauteng’s senior regional manager for mobile sites, Craig Opperman, also explained just because the batteries were still there did not mean they could still be used.

He said because they had been disconnected improperly, it was possible that they had drained to a point where their chemistry had been radically affected, and they could not perform adequately.

Vandals had also made off with an air conditioner and distribution board.

In addition, a thin piece of cable providing power to an alarm beam in the structure had been misappropriated.

Metal grating on the window of battery housing structure cut. The DB seen at the bottom left of this picture replaced one initially placed outside the structure.
Slot that previously held an air conditioning unit to keep the battery structure cool.
Alarm beam cable cut. For some reason, the thieves left the perfectly good section that was rolled up.

MTN chief of corporate affairs and sustainability Jacqui O’Sullivan told the media that one of the big problems was that a single incident of theft would often be followed by multiple other opportunistic cases of vandalism at the same site.

There were also signs of vandalism and theft all over the exterior of the base station, some of which were not necessarily committed by the original perpetrators.

Thieves had cut fibre cabling that ran up to the radio antennas fitted to the base station’s mast, presumably to see whether they contained copper.

Even with just a part of the cable damaged, MTN  said it had to replace a much longer section as it was impossible to splice the line at the cutting point.

A concrete cover that protected power cables running under the ground had also been smashed to pieces.

Other items that have been damaged and stolen at various MTN sites in the past include doors, containers, fences, security systems, and locks.

Fibre optic cable going up to radio antennas on mast cut by thieves looking for copper.
Concrete block smashed to get to copper cables under the ground.
Another power cable running from underneath the power station cut where it exits the ground.

The second stop of the tour was at another site which had also been vandalised previously, but where MTN had already moved its batteries into a highly secure container.

Although we weren’t permitted to take close-up pictures of the solution for security reasons, we could see the container from a few metres away.

It looked similar to a steel mini power substation but with a much more reinforced exterior.

Opperman said one way it was superior to the previous sites’ container was that it could only be unlocked electronically using an app and a generated reference number linked to a particular job assignment.

“We try to move away from the normal lock and key approach because they cut it [the lock],” Opperman stated.

The solution was also more affordable than a concrete bunker, which could be necessary in cases where a site is regularly badly vandalised.

Highly secured battery container unit

O’Sullivan told MyBroadband that although there were positive signs that MTN’s interventions were bearing fruit, continuously throwing money at the problem was not a long-term solution.

For that reason, MTN was taking an integrated management approach that involves multiple solutions extending beyond expensive security systems.

That includes educating communities about the impacts of the outages and the need to report the incidents.

Furthermore, MTN wants to mobilise communities by equipping community policing forums with basic tools like torches, reflective jackets, radios, and similar items.

In addition, the operator was looking at localising the security aspect by employing companies with area-specific knowledge to oversee base stations within their operating zones.

The video below shows the damage suffered at the first base station that MTN took the media to on Thursday.

Now read: Goodbye Eskom — MTN going off-grid at most towers

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“This is a crisis” — Photos of MTN’s battle against battery thieves