Like other mobile networks in South Africa with widespread network infrastructure, Vodacom’s base stations have been subject to constant vandalism and theft.
This, compounded with the detrimental effect of load-shedding on hardware, has required additional investment in battery backups for base stations and power distribution.
Speaking at a media event in Sandton, Johannesburg, Vodacom CTO Andries Delport said that vandalism and theft have become a major problem for all mobile operators, including Vodacom.
“Vandalism and theft has become a big issue,” Delport said. “Of course, it also impacts us.”
Criminals who raid mobile network sites are usually after any hardware which can be resold, including batteries, diesel, copper, and telecoms equipment.
Load-shedding and theft
Delport said that Vodacom has seen a drop in network availability of between 0.50% and 0.75% compared to three years ago when the country was not experiencing severe load-shedding.
“It doesn’t sound like much, but if you translate it into minutes, that is a lot of downtime,” he said.
“We also find other things affecting network availability. For example, if municipalities don’t pay their bills, they are disconnected and our infrastructure in that area is affected.”
Delport said that of the more than 14,000 base stations in Vodacom’s network, over 500 are targeted by vandals or thieves on a monthly basis.
This has resulted in Vodacom investing more capital into replacing stolen batteries and purchasing batteries which are less attractive to criminals.
“This year alone, we will invest about R250-R300 million just in batteries, including replacing batteries which have been stolen and those which have been damaged due to power outages.”
Between 1,500 and 2,000 batteries are stolen from Vodacom base stations every month, said Delport, and the company loses up to R130 million per year due to vandalism and battery theft.
He added that Vodacom no longer installs lead-acid batteries in its base stations, as these are attractive to thieves. It has begun purchasing Lithium-Ion batteries which require a code to activate after they have been disconnected from a power source.
Black market batteries
Speaking at the 2019 MyBroadband Mobile Network Conference, MTN general manager of engineering Zoltan Miklos said that criminals had been striking more than ever before, partly due to load-shedding.
This increase is due to the popularity of black market batteries sold to South Africans who are attempting to combat the effects of load-shedding.
He said these criminals are so brazen that they often advertise the stolen network equipment on social media, where South Africans can easily purchase it.
These stolen batteries are often purchased by unscrupulous companies who then re-sell them to unsuspecting citizens who are looking to secure their power supply against blackouts.
Mobile networks are fighting back against these criminals, however, with the help of the South African Police Service and specialised anti-crime units.