MTN is struggling to combat theft and vandalism of its backup batteries and copper wiring at its network sites.
In a press statement, MTN said that it is focused on keeping customers connected despite the extensive nature of load-shedding, but criminals are making the task challenging.
“Although MTN has improved security and is making strides in limiting instances of theft and vandalism with the assistance of the police, the increase in power outages has made this issue even more pressing,” said executive for corporate affairs at MTN, Jacqui O’Sullivan.
The batteries cost up to R28,000 each and are sought after on black markets.
Ernest Paul, MTN’s general manager of network operations, said that battery theft is an industry-wide problem that needs to be solved by communities, the private sector, the police, and prosecutors.
“Apart from the cost of replacing the stolen batteries and upgrading the broken infrastructure, communities suffer as the network degrades without the backup power,” said Paul.
“The situation is even more dire with the rolling power cuts expected due to Eskom load-shedding.”
The extent of MTN’s issues
According to MTN, the loss of services as a result of battery theft can range from a radius of 5-15km on certain sites.
These losses in network connectivity can affect anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 people, while on hub sites, network coverage can be lost for entire suburbs or regions.
MTN has beefed up its security significantly, and has achieved “immense recent successes” in the fight against theft and vandalism, but it says that the battle is far from over.
“There is a high cost to customers and the network providers each time a battery is stolen. We have, for instance, had to spend in the region of R11 million to replace batteries at 100 sites in Gauteng,” said Paul.
More broadly, MTN has spent R285 million on fixing additional infrastructure.
How criminals are using the batteries
MTN said that criminal syndicates often steal their lead acid 12V batteries because they can be used to power appliances such as televisions or microwave ovens.
While household equipment usually doesn’t work with their 48V lithium ion batteries, MTN said these syndicates use 48V-12V converters to circumvent this.
“This is an opportunistic crime and many of these batteries seem to leave the country – which is interesting as it means criminals in other countries are choosing not to steal from their own networks,” said Paul.
In addition to this, MTN stated that the high frequency of load-shedding has meant their batteries are unable to fully recharge.
“They generally have a capacity of 6-12 hours, depending on the site category, and require 12-18 hours to recharge,” said O’Sullivan.
MTN said it understands this can be a frustrating time for South Africans, and it has implemented task teams across the country to resolve any matters which arise.
Maintenance crews are also working additional shifts to restore connectivity as quickly as possible after it goes down.