South African telecoms operators continue to fight criminals who not only cost them millions each year, but leave their customers without communication services.
Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub said in 2015 that the company lost R60 million per year to theft at base stations. This includes people stealing batteries, fuel, and other equipment.
Despite numerous steps taken by mobile operators, which include increased security and surveillance, the problem is not going away.
Cell C said during 2015 that 10% of its base stations were vandalized, with battery theft the major motivator.
“The estimated repair costs are approximately R30 million,” the company said. This excludes loss of revenue due to downtime.
“Vandalism causes approximately 0.05% network unavailability that relates directly to loss of revenue.”
Cell C said vandalism is a major problem in three regions: Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, and the north of the country.
“Sites are vandalised by both opportunistic petty thieves and syndicates. Vandalism is not isolated to any given area.”
MTN SA’s GM for network operations Sidney Arnold said they also experience vandalism at base stations.
“MTN’s equipment such as batteries, copper, and generators are often a target of theft. The situation has worsened and criminals are now targeting radio equipment as well,” said Arnold.
He said the vandals, who seem to work in syndicates, also steal batteries after circumventing electric fences at MTN sites.
What the network damage looks like
The photos below show how criminals are wrecking telecoms networks in South Africa.
Cell C base station damage
Vodacom base station damage
MTN network damage
Cable theft damaging mobile networks
Police in Kimberley recently arrested 2 suspects for possession of cellphone tower batteries worth R40,000.
How companies are fighting back
It is not easy to stop vandalism and crime, but operators are trying.
Cell C said sites are shared by operators and owned by various consortiums. “This complicates access control to sites and implementing early detection,” it said.
The company said it has invested in early detection with armed response. “This seems to have a positive effect on curtailing vandalism.”
Cell C is also investing in battery safes, which increase the time criminals require to steal batteries.
To battle base station battery theft, Poynting Antennas developed the MagiCube. It is a concrete enclosure, strong enough to stop criminals from getting to the batteries inside.
By fitting the MagiCube outside a base station container, it also discourages vandals and thieves from breaking into the container and damaging the expensive radio systems inside.