Big crime problems fibre networks face in South Africa

South Africa’s major fibre network operators (FNOs) are not immune to the scourge of crime that many citizens are experiencing.

MetroFibre’s head of fibre-to-the-home Jacques de Villiers recently said that “construction mafias” posing as business forums were one of the biggest challenges to fibre rollouts across the country.

De Villiers said there was huge concern over the activities of these groups, who demanded a cut in building projects around the country and even resorted to violence and intimidation to get their way.

We asked four of the biggest operators — Frogfoot, MetroFibre, Octotel, and Openserve — how criminal activities like this impacted their operations and how they dealt with it.

Frogfoot chief operations officer Llewelyn Hofmeyr said there were three main types of crimes the operator typically had to deal with:

  • Malicious — Usually, local communities that feel Frogfoot have not engaged enough and allocated enough of the work to them.
  • Random acts of ignorance — Criminals who believe fibre is valuable or think the cable they are stealing is copper.
  • Targeted – Syndicates attack specific parts of the infrastructure to gain access to things like batteries, generators or fuel.

Hofmeyr said that Frogfoot had improved the way it handles these problems.

“Due to the fact that we try to manage this very closely, we have seen a lot less impact on our business, but in the past, we have had whole towns or areas down caused by malicious attacks.,” Hofmeyr said.

“The purpose of these attacks was just to cause brand damage on Frogfoot, and it did as our customers were heavily affected. In other cases, we have had theft in our nodes to try to steal items of value.”

He explained that heavy engagement with local communities was one of the most effective remedies.

“We try to educate people on what fibre brings to these areas and why we need to protect the network.”

“It is not just about streaming and work-from-home, a lot of these areas use the fibre for security and home assistance, and when the fibre goes down, most users lose the ability to control their homes.

MetroFibre said crime translated into additional costs, project delays, equipment damage, and productivity loss, ultimately leading to a slower fibre rollout and unhappy customers.

The FNO told MyBroadband it typically dealt with three types of crimes:

  • Theft of equipment such as batteries.
  • Vandalism of equipment and manholes.
  • Violent disruption of construction and intimidation of staff by “construction mafia” groups.

The FNO said its operations teams have also been harassed and robbed of their belongings while attending to routine on-site maintenance.

In addition to calling for help from law enforcement and formally reporting all crimes, the company proactively arranges for additional private security where necessary.

“If required, we will stop work and vacate a site temporarily until the matters are resolved, and it is safe to resume operations,” MetroFibre stated.

“The safety and security of our people is our first and foremost priority. If we believe that they are at risk of harassment or crime, we will cease operations until the matter is resolved and a safe working environment is restored.”

MetroFibre added it held meetings and discussions with community leaders if necessary.

Octotel chief operations officer Scott Cunnigham said the nature of the crimes the FNO had to deal with included extortion, coercion, petty theft, serious armed crime, physical assault, and threats to engineers and technicians.

“Our overall business performance has been affected by these incidents in a significant way,” said Cunningham.

“As with any construction, project delays come at a cost, community complaints cause reputational damage because the public is not always aware of the issues that hamper the rollout.”

“These crime incidents have slowed down fibre rollout in certain areas in Cape Town for Octotel, including Bishop Lavis, Atlantis and Kraaifontein, to name a few,” Cunningham said.

“In most instances, security was needed and hired as an additional safety measure for our Octotel engineers and technicians on the ground.”

“We continuously engage with local police forums and ward counsellors for assistance.”

“In the case of the Bishop Lavis Area,  a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was put in place for certain sections with the authorities allowing us the opportunity to move in and out of these areas as quickly as possible,” he added.

Cunningham also said that working closely and building relationships with the community during the rollout phase had been key to Octotel’s success in overcoming these issues.

Nevertheless, some of its projects had to be called off entirely, resulting in pre-order cancellations from the community.

Telkom’s wholesale fixed line company Openserve also said the common crimes it experienced were vandalism of fibre infrastructure by cutting fibre optic cables, and work stoppages caused by extortion demands by construction mafias.

“The modus operandi for these crimes suggests syndicate activity, with an increasing frequency of violent crime resulting in injury and death,” Openserve said.

The operator said the impact of network infrastructure theft and vandalism had significant consequences.

“Not only does it deprive the community of its basic right to communication, it leads to increases in the cost of telecommunication services,” it explained.

Openserve praised the recent establishment of a SAPS task team for fighting crimes related to economic sabotage, and said it was working well with these teams in the identified hot spots.


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Big crime problems fibre networks face in South Africa