Copper market drives theft

Johannesburg, 17 Aug 2007

The rate of cable theft is on the rise again, driven by a lucrative reprocessing market both locally and internationally, says Telkom.

Fixed-line incumbent Telkom says it lost more than R300 million to cable theft between April 2006 and March 2007. The company says its direct loss from theft amounts to R177 million, with security costing R130 million.

Telkom group executive of communication Lulu Letlape says greater Gauteng is the hardest hit region. Despite various successes in curbing the problem, cable theft is still prevalent and the rate of incidents is increasing, she says.

When adding the losses incurred by Telkom, Eskom and Spoornet, the loss to the South African economy adds up to R5 billion annually, says Telkom.

Telkom notes in a media statement that: "The worst year for cable theft was 2001, when Telkom, Eskom and Spoornet reported 20 500 cases nationally. The direct impact on the three organisations amounted to losses of R268 million and the cost to the economy is estimated at 10 times this amount."

Over the next few years, incidences declined until they peaked again last year when 11 000 incidences were reported, Letlape says. "The replacements costs are still being calculated." The cost of copper cabling has also since increased.

Telkom says the overseas reprocessing copper market has grown ever more lucrative, providing incentives for thieves to boost their activities. Stolen copper is also sold locally as scrap metal, Letlape says.

Business Against Crime national project manager Lorinda Nel says the organisation is planning to do research to determine the markets in which stolen copper cable is sold.

Nel was unable to provide input as to the scope and methodology of the research, saying discussions on the study are still in the initial stages.

Alternative option

Copper-to-fibre optic cable replacement company Kabel-X says another strategy is to replace copper with fibre optic cable, which has no inherent value.

The cost to replace it can be recouped through the resale of the copper in the market, ensuring the company no longer has to worry about security costs, says Iain Giffen, CEO of Kabel-X Middle East and Africa.

Letlape would not discuss Telkom's initiatives to replace its old copper with fibre optic cable. However, she says the fixed-line operator continuously looks at new technologies to deploy in areas where it experiences high levels of copper theft.

Kabel-X chairman Richard Baker said earlier this month that his company was going to do two pilots for the fixed-line operator, starting in August.

The pilots will take place in Mayfair and City Deep, in Johannesburg, where Telkom has underground copper cables that are 40 or 50 years old, he said.

Letlape says Telkom has introduced cable alarms that are activated when cable transmissions are interrupted. However, in most cases, the cable would already be cut when the alarm is activated, she notes.

"Where numerous thefts occur, Telkom identifies these as hotspots and works on counter-measures to attempt to arrest the cable thieves."

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