An Unpleasant Situation
There have been several reports of cell tower battery theft in Africa. In April of 2019, Cellular network provider MTN recorded stolen batteries. There were about 733 batteries stolen from the sites throughout the country. According to MTN, these incidents saw an increase over the weeks ever since then. By the time of July of 2019 came by then, the cell tower battery theft increased by double the amount. It increased to 125 of the previous week, up from 74 in the week before. The batteries each cost an estimated amount of R28,000 and can last up to 8 years
Who is Causing the Theft of these Batteries?
According to fellow telecom company and mobile operator Vodacom, it is due to an operating syndicate. The syndicate was said to be targeting cell phone network base stations.
Incidents Happening to One can also Affect a Man
Fellow telecom company and mobile operator Vodacom was hopeful for the Infrastructure Act. They hoped that the act would punish the criminals responsible with harsh sentences. The criminals who stole and vandalized the key network infrastructure. This as well includes the cell tower batteries.
“The new Infrastructure Act works in our favor as it ensures the imposition of harsher sentences to perpetrators of vandalism and theft of infrastructure in the country,” according to Vodacom spokesperson Bryan Kennedy.
Both telecom companies MTN and Vodacom united in reporting the incidents. They called on the community to help report those who are working in a syndicate group. Byron Kennedy added that
“Vodacom is fighting back. Vodacom has ramped up the fight against this criminal activity and is working closely with law enforcement agencies and security companies to arrest thieves for prosecution. We also appeal to members of the community to report this form of crime to police”. He further stated that the theft of batteries could affect handicapped areas. It could lead to poor or even no network or internet coverage in those locations.
Areas Affected the Most
Unfortunately, the areas affected the most due to the theft are the most remote areas. As stated earlier these are the ones that have little to no network or internet coverage.
According to Ernest Paul, MTN’s general manager for network operations, some areas were hit more than others. These include Soweto, Tembisa, Vereeniging, and Parktown. Despite this, it was still considered a nationwide problem nonetheless. He stated that there must be a need for a concerted drive. The drive would help with clamping down on syndicates or opportunistic criminals.
“Battery theft and related vandalism is costing MTN hundreds of millions of rand and the impact on the entire industry is exorbitant. Recent data shows MTN had 733 batteries stolen from its sites across the country in April,” he stated.
For Vodacom, the provinces affected the most were Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and KwaZulu-Natal. It was severely hit that there were reportedly some arrests and convictions in some.
According to Cell C, Cell tower battery theft in the areas of Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, and along South Africa’s borders are more common. There were reports of more than 800 sites being broken into, with around 2,300 batteries reportedly stolen. This was during the months between January and December of 2018. According to the company, almost 700 sites were vandalized from January 2019 to June 2019. There were 812 batteries stolen as well.
These batteries are not easy to replace as they cost millions. Their purpose is to power cellphone masts. If stolen, there would be no backup power.
Not only are the operators affected by this issue of tower vandalism, but the service of the consumers in areas that have a great risk of getting cut off completely. One theft incident alone can make the network in an area be down for days if not several. This could also have a major negative impact on a lot of individuals and businesses. The vandalism itself can result in ecological damage resulting from diesel spillage.
Not to mention the loss of power can lead to load-shedding. According to Jacqui O’ Sullivan, MTN’s executive manager for corporate affairs explained that “Load-shedding is seeing entire neighborhoods cloaked in darkness at predictable times, which is offering criminals greater cover for their thieving”.
Some sites were even stated to be broken and vandalized beyond economic repair.
Back in August 2019, 53 base stations of MTN were shut down due to theft and vandalism. 89 meanwhile were put on hold for new upcoming batteries and other repair fixes.
Bryan Kennedy stated that there is a rise in the possibility of a network blackout due to the theft. He also added that “But more important than the monetary impact, criminals are cutting off entire communities”.
A Heavy Price to Pay
According to Karin Fourie, Cell C executive head of communications stated that “If a battery has been stolen, there’s no backup, and when sites are broken into, the vandalism often means that it increases the repair time, which means that towers are down for a long time.” If the thefts aren’t contained, additional costs that are incurred could risk being passed to the consumer. This is due to the escalation of the cost of battery replacement and tower repairs. The number of battery thefts of Vodacom’s base station saw a yearly increase with about an average of 35%.
According to Ernest Paul, the replacement of the batteries would not be without a heavy cost. The replacement of batteries at 100 sites could cost the cellular network over R10m. This doesn’t even include the cost for the repairs of the cell towers. Not to mention the recurring vandalism that happens during the theft. He stated that “We must avoid the costs of these thefts impacting the consumer, so shutting down these criminals has to be a priority. If left unchecked, entire communities, individual customers and small businesses alike, in affected areas, will struggle to access their mobile services as the theft comes with extensive damage to the entire network infrastructure”.
Bryan Kennedy stated that they had some knowledge of an operating syndicate. They stated to have worked with many sectors in tracking the operations of the syndicate. Those involved were the police, private security, the community, and MTN. He stated that “We are aware that some of the stolen batteries are being sold to neighboring countries. This is why we encourage everyone who has concrete evidence or information to report the matter to the police”.
“We are constantly looking at ways to eradicate the problem of battery theft. However, everyone has a role to play. While operators are under siege from these thieves, the people most affected are South Africans, who rely on their mobile connectivity for home and work, and for their safety and security systems,” Ernest Paul added.
Bryan Kennedy stated that the batteries that were stolen were sold in the country. Others meanwhile have made it over the way to the border.
Vodacom stated to be losing millions in its 10, 000 base stations due to replacing the batteries.
In Conclusion: How do we Fight Back and Deal with this in the Future?
There have been reports of arrested criminals for the theft of the batteries. Recovery of at least some batteries was able to happen as well. Three suspects were caught in possession of the cell phone network batteries while two fled the scene. The Hawks Serious Organized Crime and Port Shepstone, KwaZulu-Natal arrested them. The police were able to recover 48 cell phone tower batteries at the scene. Half of the batteries were from Vodacom while the other half were from Colide. It reached a total value of R480 000 and the bakkie estimated at R280 000 (reported stolen) in the Berea area of Durban.
Recovery of the batteries was able to occur over time. In July 2019 alone, 338 batteries worth R4 million were recovered. Another 275 batteries worth almost R3 million recovered in September. By January of 2020, 143 batteries worth R1.2 million were recovered thanks to MTN’s efforts. The number of arrests was also able to rise. However, it doesn’t stop there as battery theft incidents continue to occur.
In January 2020 alone, more than 700 batteries were stolen from MTN base stations. This comes from 122 incidents. Cable theft has also increased over December and January. January itself had at least 109 incidents.
Load-shedding doesn’t help the issue either. The criminal syndicates keep on finding new ways in committing theft and vandalism. Generally, it takes 12-18 hours for the battery back-up system to recharge. Depending on the site category, batteries generally have a capacity of 6-12 hours.
Ernest Paul stated that “It is time to fight back and this starts with all South Africans playing their part. One simple call can make a world of difference in what has now become an endemic problem which is affecting all South Africans”. Bryan Kennedy also stated that “We’d like to appeal to ordinary members of the community to report incidents of battery theft or site vandalism by calling our toll-free number”.
Recovery of the batteries continues to occur ever since then. Appropriate measures were taken against the arrested criminals that were responsible. The theft and vandalism of these batteries and towers are no joke, as they directly affect the lives of many and they are the ones who suffer the most in the end.