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Telco base stations under siege amid latest load-shedding

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 11 Jun 2021

Thieves and vandals are at it again, using the cover of darkness wrought by the current bout of load-shedding to target mobile operators’ base stations.

Since Eskom started load-shedding, SA’s mobile operators have seen a spike in incidents of theft and vandalism of their infrastructure, leaving communities without connectivity.

Over the years, whenever troubled power utility Eskom announced load-shedding, the telcos have had to run around the clock to ensure network stability, while also trying to fend off the threat posed by thieves and vandals.

The theft and vandalism of infrastructure has resulted in the mobile operators losing hundreds of millions of rands over the years.

In some cases, the rate of vandalism and theft, especially multiple repeat incidents, is forcing the operators to abandon base stations due to nonviable replacement costs, thereby adversely impacting network availability or quality in some areas.

As Eskom announced stage four load-shedding this week, network operators are fighting hard to maintain network stability in the face of the multiple threats posed by high levels of the blackouts, battery theft and the continuous vandalism of network infrastructure.

“Although the vandals and thieves have a direct impact on network availability and stability, load-shedding and load reduction, which has increased over the past five years, has emerged as the biggest contributor to our challenges,” says Ernest Paul, MTN SA general manager for network operations.

Sitting ducks

According to the mobile operator, the power outages also continue to play into the hands of criminals and criminal syndicates, as they find it easier to access the infrastructure under the cover of darkness.

Paul says new rounds of load-shedding place network availability under increased strain, as the battery backup system generally takes 12-18 hours to recharge, while batteries generally have a capacity of six to 12 hours, depending on the site category.

“Constant outages have a direct impact on the performance of the batteries, while theft of the batteries themselves means replacements need to be installed,” he explains.

“Battery autonomy, therefore, remains one of the biggest pillars of resilience, followed by the infrastructure security to protect the batteries and other equipment that form part of our network infrastructure,” he says.

The latest data shows the total incidents of theft and vandalism of MTN infrastructure amounted to 378 in May, up from 312 in April. Paul says the most significant improvement occurred in the reduction in battery theft, which is down to 52 incidents in May this year compared with as many as 78 incidents in May 2020. However, of more concern, is that copper theft is on the rise – measuring 94 incidents in May, up from 63 incidents a year ago.

MTN says a notable surge in total incidents occurred in the Eastern Cape, which measured 76 in May, compared with only 32 this time last year. Limpopo registered the highest number of incidents of 83 in May − up significantly from 43 incidents a year ago.

The company notes this is the first time SA has experienced this high level of load-shedding in June compared to any other year.

Backup needed for backup

In the past year alone, Telkom says it has lost 7 841 batteries. “As illustration of the impact of the problem, Telkom could have built about 35 new base stations with the money lost from battery theft,” says the telco.

It notes this vandalism destroys backup power that should keep communications active when lights go off, and as a result, “productivity, connectivity and connection to those you need to be in touch with is affected”.

Unfortunately, that isn’t where it ends, Telkom adds. “As network towers enable the communications that ensures vital services are delivered and day-to-day tasks are completed, vandalism of network tower infrastructure and theft also hurts the ailing South African economy on a macro-level, as well as a large proportion of the population that needs to participate in the digital economy.

“Access to the Internet and mobile telephony are essential services, even more so during the coronavirus pandemic, and the destruction of the towers destroys these services as well. The result of poor Internet connection, and often no calls, can negatively affect an event of a life and death situation. Communities need to stand together in ensuring the plague of theft and vandalism does not affect people’s lives further,” Telkom says.

Cell C says it makes every effort to ensure uptime on its network; however, as with all other businesses, the telco is affected by load-shedding and this impacts connectivity.

Explains Andre Ittman, Cell C chief operations officer: “In addition to the downtime, we often see a spike in incidents of vandalism and battery theft at base stations during periods of load-shedding.

“This has a massive knock-on effect as there is a cost to replace the batteries, associated revenue loss and a negative impact on customer experience.”

Cell C says it continues to evaluate and implement necessary solutions to address the associated risk and threat levels to its infrastructure.

These include, but are not limited to, alarm systems, armed response, electrical fences and CCTV systems.

“We have also engaged in various SAPS operations, visiting second-hand dealers and established a close working agreement with other mobile network operators,” says the company.

R1 billion for batteries

Vodacom says it is aware that customers experience issues connecting to the network because of load-shedding.

“Our towers use batteries as a backup but these have limited power and will eventually fail. We have put proactive measures in place and are doing everything we can to help mitigate the effects of widespread load-shedding,” a Vodacom spokesperson tells ITWeb.

“For instance, we have deployed generators at numerous sites across the country and are working as hard as possible to keep customers connected. We would like to apologise for any inconvenience – normal services will resume once load-shedding runs its course.”

SA’s biggest operator says battery theft is still a big problem in the country and it affects all mobile players.

It notes that although incidents of base station vandalism came down following the strict lockdown restrictions, as lockdown regulations have been eased, cases of battery theft and vandalism are picking up.

Vodacom explains this is because organised syndicates are coming up with unique approaches to commit this crime. “For instance, on average, Vodacom records 700 incidents of battery theft and base station vandalism per month.

“Vodacom spends significant amounts on backup power solutions, such as diesel generators and batteries, to maintain power to our sites during period of load-shedding. In 2020, over a period of only six months, Vodacom spent R1 billion on batteries to keep its network operational during load-shedding.”