Telkom’s Openserve sees spike in cable theft during lockdown

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 20 Apr 2020
Althon Beukes, Openserve CEO.
Althon Beukes, Openserve CEO.

Copper cable thieves and vandals are using the cover of the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown to target Telkom subsidiary Openserve’s infrastructure.

So said Althon Beukes, newly-appointed Openserve CEO, in an e-mail interview with ITWeb last week.

As the lockdown continues, power utility Eskom has also not been spared by the thieves, resulting in crippling power supply interruptions across the country.

Police minister Bheki Cele on Sunday said despite law enforcement authorities clamping down on defiant citizens for not observing the COVID-19 regulations, sections of society continue to disobey the lockdown rules.

Openserve is the wholesale business unit of Telkom, and provides wholesale products and services to other licensed telecommunications service providers through an open access network.

The company saw leadership changes at the end of last month, with long-serving CEO Alphonzo Samuels leaving to be replaced by Beukes, former Telkom group chief information officer.

Multiple dangers

According to Beukes, since the lockdown came into force, the company has seen an increase in copper cable theft and vandalism at several locations across the country.

“Since the start of April 2020, while the country is under lockdown, we have had copper cable theft incidents in Atteridgeville, Mayfair, Newcastle, Pietermaritzburg and Tugela Ferry,” says Beukes.

“During this period of national lockdown, being connected is of paramount importance for the safety of our families; being able to communicate with those outside our homes; being able to work from home; business continuity; and the overall economy of the country; as well as for essential services that are required by the country during this time.”

He points out that not only does the cable theft impact Openserve. “It also places strain on the communities that we serve. Not being able to contact essential services such as the SAPS [South African Police Service], municipality and hospitals, means people are forced to leave their homes and travel to get support.

“From power cuts to network downtime, cable theft knocks out traffic lights, delays trains, plunges whole neighbourhoods into darkness, and cuts off critical communications. The dangers of cable theft include the exposed damaged cables and, in some cases, when the neutral supply cable is affected by the theft, there are voltage fluctuations that affect the supply to our customers exceeding the normal operating voltages, destroying equipment and appliances,” Beukes laments.

“We have seen some incidents of copper theft during the lockdown which, assuming everyone is under lockdown, should not have happened.”

Beukes adds the pandemic puts additional strain on resources – resources at the front line deployed to ensure the nation is connected at all times and able to work online.

“Cable theft diverts the resources – manpower and funding to repair and replace – from enabling the additional required connectivity and capacity to now wasting time and resource to deal with the cable theft. All essential services are heavily reliant on voice and data connectivity – SAPS, courts, hospitals, clinics, banks – all of which are heavily impacted due to cable theft.”

In his weekly newsletter last week, president Cyril Ramaphosa also decried cable theft at Eskom, saying: “Eskom has also reported an increase in cable theft and vandalism of its infrastructure since the lockdown began, resulting in power supply interruptions and damage that will cost a considerable amount to repair.”

Ramaphosa also said it is a sad indictment of our society that dozens of schools have been burgled, trashed or burnt to the ground. “When the lockdown is lifted and learning resumes, thousands of our children will have no school to return to, depriving them of the right to education.”

On Friday, basic education minister Angie Motshekga condemned the 403 incidents of vandalism, burglary and destruction of schools across several provinces since the start of the COVID-19 nationwide lockdown.

Looking to the future

The theft of cables at Openserve comes at a time the Telkom unit is moving ahead with modernising its network from copper to fibre.

Beukes reveals that over the last five years, Openserve has spent more than R1.5 billion on theft prevention and network rehabilitation efforts.

This figure excludes revenue lost by Openserve and its customers as a result of cable theft and the impact it has on connectivity, he notes.

“A large of part of our [Openserve’s] footprint with regards to connecting businesses and residential customers is still copper,” says Beukes.

“For this reason, it is critically important to ensure the maintenance and security of this infrastructure, as we want to ensure our copper customers remain connected without any disruptions to good quality service, while we modernise our network and be able to offer alternative technologies.”

However, he notes one of the biggest disadvantages of copper is that it is a recyclable resource that is prone to being stolen because of its value.

“This results in significant losses, costs, service disruptions and overall inconvenience to customers as connectivity gets interrupted due to copper cable theft. Another serious disadvantage of copper cable is its susceptibility to corrosion, which makes maintenance a continuous factor.”

According to Beukes, Openserve has made significant progress with modernising its network and, as a result, has been able to migrate a large number of customers from copper infrastructure to modern technology.

However, he says building the necessary footprint to cover all areas previously covered by copper infrastructure takes time and requires capital investment.

“We are making continuous progress in modernising our technology and rolling out fibre infrastructure to be able to fully migrate those currently reliant on copper infrastructure.

“We have the most extensive domestic fibre deployment within our borders, connecting all metros and towns in the country, and we continue to roll out and provide access to as many communities as possible.

“In the meantime, we continue to support all our customers in the copper infrastructure to ensure uninterrupted connectivity until we reach them with the right alternative technology.”

Pro-active stance

Beukes says Openserve takes a forward-thinking approach to enable future-focused technologies to not only be viable, but to thrive within the South African environment by future-proofing the country’s infrastructure through building capabilities that can handle the ever-increasing data volumes.

“We’re consistently looking for technology and methodology to make connectivity accessible to everyone; to bridge the digital divide sooner and bring more of our communities into the first economy.

“Connectivity of all South Africans is our top priority and we take all cases of vandalism, theft, fraud or sabotage extremely seriously. We work closely with the South African Police Service on these matters and urge the public to be vigilant and to report any suspicious acts.

“If you have any information relating to vandalism, theft, fraud or sabotage, please contact Telkom’s crime hotline on 0800 124 000.”