The steady easing of lockdown restrictions in South Africa has brought with it an increase in battery theft at South African mobile networks.
This is according to MTN executive for corporate affairs Jacqui O’Sullivan, who told MyBroadband that incidents of battery theft were increasing in frequency as lockdown restrictions are being eased.
In response to the threat posed by the advent of South Africa’s initial COVID-19 outbreak, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster earlier this year.
Shortly thereafter, the government imposed a strict lockdown that prevented all non-essential movement and travel around the country.
This had a drastic effect on the economy, but also greatly hindered the opportunity for criminals to steal batteries from cellphone towers in South Africa.
Battery theft at cellphone tower sites belonging to local mobile operators has been a problem for years, and networks have continued to implement creative and effective ways of deterring and capturing criminals.
The problem is pervasive and has caused networks to shut down some of their cellphone towers as the theft of batteries and vandalism of infrastructure strained its network.
In addition to causing severe damage to crucial telecommunications infrastructure, battery theft also exacerbates the effect of load-shedding on mobile networks.
Batteries used as backup power sources are critical to keeping networks running during outages, and if these batteries are stolen it can result in major connectivity issues.
Thankfully the initial strict lockdown provided a break from this criminal assault.
“MTN witnessed a decline of its network infrastructure vandalism since the start of national lockdown in March,” O’Sullivan said.
“Our data reveals that 3,183 cases of property vandalism were reported, which includes 603 battery theft cases.”
O’Sullivan added that the notable decline in incidents during lockdown level 5 was directly related to the inability for people to move around without permits.
“When we proceeded from Level 5 to Level 4 and 3 we noted an increase in thefts at base station sites.”
Greater freedom of movement means more criminals now have opportunity to vandalise or steal from cellphone towers.
Load-shedding and eased lockdown restrictions
In addition to the increase in battery theft caused by relaxed lockdown restrictions, O’Sullivan also said that the return of load-shedding has also resulted in more battery theft incidents.
Demand for batteries increases during load-shedding, and with rolling blackouts projected to get three-times worse over the next three years, this demand is only set to rise.
“Load-shedding contributes to an increase of attempts of battery theft,” O’Sullivan said.
“The most notable increase has been on non-ferrous metals such as copper where criminals are stealing any items they are able to sell swiftly to obtain an income.”
Battery theft and vandalism at base stations have a negative effect on network performance, particularly during periods of load-shedding, where mobile networks rely on backup power to continue providing connectivity.
South African mobile operators have continued to upgrade their infrastructure with new security measures to combat this problem.
“We are constantly updating and reviewing our operational and strategic view of all incidents across the environment,” O’Sullivan said.
“We put in place measures such an installing CCTV, improved our security system by hiring an external private security company, and recently introduced a new enhanced battery storehouse.”
MTN will also implement improved security measures towards the end of 2020.
Despite the increase in battery theft incidents, MTN is encouraged by the work done by law enforcement and its partners to fight battery theft in South Africa.
“A few weeks ago, a joint effort by MTN, Bidvest Protea Coin, the police and NPA led to the arrest and successful prosecution for 20 years, with seven years suspended, of the criminal kingpin behind a spate of thefts of valuable equipment from MTN towers,” O’Sullivan said.
“The case entailed 24 separate counts of theft of network cards from MTN towers in the Western Cape, and it took over two years of hard work, investigations and engagements between MTN, SAPS, Bidvest Protea Coin (BPC) and the NPA.”
“We are pleased with the outcome and hope it sends a very clear signal to would-be thieves and syndicates out there that we are committed to finding and stopping this criminal activity – with harsh penalties.”
This investigation began in January 2018 after 22 criminal cases were reported with the same modus operandi, involving the network cards being stolen from MTN, as well as another company’s containers.
Images of MTN’s new secure battery storehouse are shown below.