Vandalism irks mobile operators

Johannesburg – MTN and Vodacom have warned that South Africans may suffer network problems resulting from vandalism on cellphone towers; as thieves steal the batteries and fuel that powers the infrastructure, especially during load-shedding.

  The network operators said load- shedding has a damaging effect on the service, as the battery backup system requires time to recharge, and load-shedding compromises this.

  MTN corporate affairs executive Jacqui O’Sullivan said the batteries generally have a capacity of six to 12 hours, and require 12 to 18 hours to recharge.

  The operator spent R300 million on batteries and added 1 800 generators in 2018 for existing sites; and more money is spent on security personnel.

  MTN general manager for network operations Ernest Paul said such a situation leaves consumers without access to network services, because of downtime caused by repeated repairs; or when towers get terminated after regular vandalism renders them unsustainable. “This impacts on consumers’ access to emergency services, effective business operations and connecting with loved ones.  Battery theft compromises safety and welfare of every South African, it is not a crime we can fight alone,” Paul said.

   A Vodacom spokesperson said there has been an average increase of around 35 percent in battery thefts at base stations.  “On average 553 incidents per month are recorded, and there are cases where a site gets damaged beyond economical repair.”

  The representative added that during Eskom load- shedding, vandalism of network infrastructure can have a significant effect on the mobile service.

  “Each theft can cause the network to be down for days, and severely impact businesses and those using the internet to study. It can also cause ecological damage from diesel spillage. People often can’t make emergency calls, and are put in danger by these criminals, and soon these criminals will cost lives.”

  Vodacom said it loses millions in replacing batteries in its estimated 10 000 base stations.

  “We lose between R120 million and R130 million to vandalism and theft each year, with between 1 500 and 2 000 batteries stolen each month,” the operator said.

  The stolen batteries can be sold to power household appliances, and some are stripped and sold to scrap metal dealers.  “In some cases, the batteries are sold in neighbouring countries. As for cables, it appears they get sold to scrap metal dealers all across South Africa,” the spokesperson said.

   Vodacom is replacing lead acid batteries with lithium-ion units, which need activation codes to work after being disconnected.

  The network providers have urged people with information on mobile network vandalism to report it to the nearest police. They are also working with police to limit vandalism, and have set up specific measures to reduce theft.

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