Why armed robbers are attacking fibre installers in South Africa

The FTTH Council Africa recently stated that criminals are increasingly targeting fibre installers in South Africa.

Contractors are being robbed at gunpoint, hijacked, and taken hostage, it said.

A primary reason for this is that there is a big market for second-hand fibre equipment, Council CEO Juanita Clark told MyBroadband.

Feedback from the industry suggests there are about 400 teams around the country constantly deploying fibre, and each team consists of 10-15 people.

From the backlog on order books, though, there is a need for 1,000 teams.

“There’s this massive void and this market needs to be filled,” said Clark.

This opens the market to small startups which are desperate to get their hands on affordable fibre splicing and testing equipment – and which might not look too closely at where the equipment comes from.

Most-targeted areas

In 2016, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille said fibre contractors refused to work in Nyanga and Khayelitsha after repeatedly being robbed at gunpoint and having their equipment stolen.

While Nyanga and Khayelitsha are known as crime hotspots, fibre installers are being targeted in “safer” areas, too, said Niki Lankesar – sales director for Coral-i Solutions.

Installers have been robbed in Silverton in Pretoria, and Vumatel contractors have been hit while installing fibre in Johannesburg.

Despite the danger, contractors don’t leave an area when they are hit by crime. “Once a mandate has been made to roll out in an area, there’s no going back,” said Lankesar.

The infrastructure provider has made commitments to operators, which made commitments to residents and secured fibre pre-orders.

“It just adds to the cost. They look at alternative means to get the work done, they won’t do work overnight. It takes longer.”

Crime costs broadband users

Chris Nel from Lambda Test Equipment said when work needs to be done on high-priority links, you have to do it between midnight and 04:00.

To ensure this happens safely, operators are dispatching security guards with teams, while guards have been placed at certain key connectivity areas targeted by criminals.

This all causes costs to go up, which means prices can’t come down as they should.

Nel said equipment that gets stolen the most are splicers, optical time-domain reflectometers, and optical loss test sets.

This is expensive kit, with fibre splicers going for around R80,000 each.

All the devices have serial numbers printed on them and embedded in the hardware, however, making it easier to track stolen items.

The test equipment must also be calibrated regularly, and the companies which service devices are able to pick up if a piece of equipment was stolen if they have the relevant data.

It is for this reason the FTTH Council Africa is launching an equipment monitoring database, which will allow operators and contractors to check whether devices were reported stolen before buying them.

Nel said they are working on technology to blacklist devices in the same way as mobile operators block stolen phones from working.

Success in operators’ hands

“The entire success of this is in the operators’ hands,” said Clark.

Operators need to ask their contractors to submit serial numbers so they can track whether their equipment has been reported stolen.

Calibrators who service a stolen device will also track it back to the last legitimate owner and inform them it has been found.

To address thieves trying to fence their goods elsewhere on the continent, Clark said they plan to roll out the initiative across Africa.

She said their challenge now is to inform the thieves that it will no longer be profitable to steal from fibre installers.

“We don’t need the good guys to read this, we want the bad guys to,” she said.

Now read: Fibre installers being robbed at gunpoint and hijacked

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Why armed robbers are attacking fibre installers in South Africa