Cable theft effect: you’ll be surprised

From power cuts to network downtime, cable theft knocks out traffic lights, delays trains, plunges whole neighbourhoods into darkness, and cuts off critical communications.

When it comes to the financial damage of cable theft, organisations bandy about estimated figures like R5 billion and R10 billion per year lost to the South African economy.

In its latest annual report, Telkom said that its losses due to cable theft increased from R165.4 million to R183.5 million between their 2010 and 2011 financial year, with the number of cable theft incidents increasing by 17%.

However, sources close to the company say that that the numbers published by all the role-players is not a true reflection of the damages caused – they are, in fact, much higher.

To get an idea of how cable theft affects South Africa’s broadband networks, we contacted most of the big network operators, but only Vodacom and Telkom responded.

Vodacom’s acting head of corporate affairs, Tshepo Ramodibe, said that their engineers agreed that the direct impact on Vodacom is small because very little of their infrastructure relies on copper cables.

“However, there can be a pretty big unintentional impact if our fibre optic cables are damaged in the process of criminals digging up copper cables,” Ramodibe said.

Dark Fibre Africa answered our questions on the topic similarly last year, saying that the majority of incidents of cable theft were a case of mistaken identity.

Theo Hess, Telkom’s head of network field services, provided a full report of how cable theft affects Telkom and how they are responding to the ever-growing problem.

Cable theft increasing, eats a large chunk of maintenance budget

In his report, Hess revealed the statistics Telkom collects to measure the prevalence of cable theft and the impact on their operations.

Looking at the instances of theft and sabotage over the last few months shows an increasing trend.

This is despite the tendency of copper theft to follow the price of copper at the London Metal Exchange, which took a sharp dip towards the middle of August last year (2011), Hess explained.

Cable theft and sabotage stats - Telkom, November 2010 - December 2011
Cable theft and sabotage stats - Telkom

Hess also presented data that showed that of all the instances of line faults, which they call theft and breakage incidents, theft and sabotage was responsible for a significant proportion.

They classify instances as Theft & Sabotage, Lightning, Damage, Breaks, Failure, and Clip-on Fraud.

The difference between damage, breaks, and failures, Hess explained, can get fuzzy at times, but in general they are defined as follows:

  • Damage: Accidentally caused by humans.
  • Breaks: Force majeure, or damage not caused by humans.
  • Failure: When equipment stops working from normal wear and tear.
Copper theft and breaking incident stats for 2010-2011: Telkom
Copper theft and breaking incident stats for 2010-2011: Telkom
Fibre theft and breakage incident stats for 2011-2012, as at January 2012: Telkom
Fibre theft and breakage incident stats for 2011-2012, as at January 2012: Telkom

Hess explained that most indents of theft and sabotage affecting optical fibre cables is “collateral damage” from copper theft incidents. Thieves sometimes have to go through the fibre to get to the copper, or they don’t know whether a cable is copper of fibre before they’ve cut it open.

Theft and sabotage on optical fibre causes the most serious service disruptions and is responsible for the biggest down-time, Hess added.

Asked how the money used to replace stolen copper might have otherwise been used, Hess said that it could have been allocated in many different places.

Some areas it could have been used would be to improve service delivery and rejuvenate the network rather than replacing already working equipment. This, along with the money saved, could translate into lower prices for end users, and it could have benefited the bottom-line for shareholders, Hess said.

In the end, copper cable theft affects businesses, home users, shareholders and consumers alike.

Hess said that much has been done by government recently to address the problem, but a lot hinges on the implementation of these new measures.

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Cable theft effect: you’ll be surprised