Fibre cables getting stolen and “smoked” in South Africa

At least one major fibre network operator (FNO) in South Africa has learnt that criminals are stealing parts of its fibre cabling and smoking them.

MyBroadband recently asked the country’s biggest FNOs how their rollouts and network uptime were impacted by crime.

We learnt that the big drive to expand fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) connectivity to less affluent areas has meant crime has become a much bigger headache for FNOs than in the past.

In addition to endangering the lives of their staff and causing operational slowdowns, criminal elements in poorer neighbourhoods are pushing up the prices of high-speed broadband access.

Frogfoot said its initial rollouts in residential suburbs had minimal criminal factors to consider. However, a host of security challenges have come to the fore while expanding its prepaid, uncapped Internet access in lower-income areas as part of its Rise initiative.

The primary issue has been “business forum” and gang-related crime, where groups attempt to secure work contracts through intimidation and holding teams to ransom, a tactic used as leverage in negotiations.

“There are also crime syndicates who specialise in theft of equipment, alternative power sources, and copper,” Frogfoot said. “They use professional methods in their approach and sell most equipment across the border.”

Herotel and Metrofibre highlighted similar problems.

“Theft of equipment, vandalism and threats to our staff and contractors by construction mafia or community forums are the key crime challenges we experience,” said MetroFibre optical assurance manager Johan Booysen.

“We also get pressure from groups when we attempt to rollout in new underserved areas, notably multi-party SMME and taxi organisations in local communities looking to secure contracts.”

Booysen also raised an interesting issue that emerged post-rollouts — thieves stealing the strength member of the fibre core for its glass. This is then crushed and smoked.

While he did not elaborate further, there have been numerous instances where analyses of illegal drugs found around the world contained pieces of crushed glass, including in the popular South African township drug Nyaope, a mix of low-grade heroin, cannabis products, antiretroviral drugs, and bulking agents.

The latter can include particularly harmful materials that drug sellers use to add more cheap weight and volume to their products.

Other issues highlighted by Frogfoot and MetroFibre were:

  • Theft of battery backup and generators, and vandalism of equipment
  • Aerial poles being stolen and used for fences
  • Robbery of equipment at gunpoint for both technical teams on the road and staff at site offices
  • Harassment and robbing of operations teams while attending to routine maintenance
  • Roadworks, waterworks, and construction teams not taking cognisance of where fibre infrastructure is in the ground leading to avoidable and costly damages

A heavy cost

Booysen said the damages and losses suffered due to crime ultimately pushed MetroFibre’s cost of doing business, which could impact pricing.

“Incidents of crime translate into additional costs, project delays, damage to equipment, and loss of productivity, which ultimately means a slower fibre rollout and unhappy customers due to the delays,” Booysen said.

“The hard cost of replacing damaged equipment is just one aspect, however. The time in negotiations, delays on the build and the stress and strain experienced by our teams and contractors are just as significant, and difficult to quantify.”

Herotel also said the costs incurred due to repairing or replacing stolen or damaged infrastructure do affect operational expenditure and, as a result, influence its retail pricing.

“Nevertheless, our commitment to efficient management and community collaboration helps mitigate this impact wherever possible,” the company said.

Frogfoot said although the contracting of private security companies and round-the-clock intelligent monitoring systems did cost it a “considerable” amount, this was not passed onto the customer but wasd planned for and allocated as part of risk to the business.

“We mitigate these costs in a variety of ways, including insurance, enhanced security and ongoing risk assessment,” the FNO stated.

All three of the FNOs said that collaboration with communities was a key part of resolving the issues.

“Our most successful approach has been working closely with legitimate community representative bodies,” Herotel said.

“This collaboration fosters a shared responsibility for safeguarding infrastructure and contributes significantly to minimising criminal incidents.”

Frogfoot and Metrofibre said they also worked with members of the community to upskill them to work as contractors for installations, activations or reactivation campaigns.

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Fibre cables getting stolen and “smoked” in South Africa