Vodacom base stations under siege in Soweto

Samuel Mungadze
By Samuel Mungadze, Africa editor
Johannesburg, 14 Aug 2020

Vodacom says it is under siege in Soweto, as attacks on critical infrastructure have intensified, leaving entire communities in the area with no connectivity.

The company is appealing to Soweto residents to report incidents of battery theft and site vandalism, as the situation has become severe, resulting in significant site downtime, and causing millions of rands worth of damage.

Vodacom says its base stations are the only form of connectivity available to many communities, and when criminals target these base stations to steal diesel, power cables, batteries and even radio equipment, they can cut off thousands of people.

The telco is also warning vandals behind the spate of thefts that they are placing communities in danger as they cannot even make emergency calls.

Theft and vandalism of infrastructure has resulted in the mobile operators losing hundreds of millions of rands and Vodacom has since enlisted other communities to work with police in monitoring its base stations.

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.

“Incidents of base station vandalism and battery theft have significantly gotten worse since the beginning of the year. On a daily basis, we experience multiple incidents of break-ins in our base stations. What we are finding through our investigations is that this crime is being perpetuated by organised syndicates who are always finding new ways to commit this type of crime,” says Perumal Moodley, executive head for operations for the Vodacom Gauteng region.

“We lose millions of rands worth of damage to our base stations annually as a result of theft and vandalism, which ultimately impacts the cost of mobile services. But more importantly than the monetary impact, criminals are cutting off entire communities.”

Vodacom says each theft incident can result in the network in that area being down for days, and can severely impact businesses as well as anyone relying on the Internet to study or work.

Attacks on base stations can also cause ecological damage, with vandalism resulting in diesel spillage.

The company, however, says it 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.

"Crucially for us, the number one line of defence against site vandalism is the local community,” says Moodley. “Therefore, we urge anyone who sees suspicious activity around our base stations to report it to the police. It's in everyone's best interest to act before their signal is cut off.

"Our resolve to catch thieves has never been stronger and has been emboldened by the precedent-setting case at the Cape Town Regional Court where a man received a hefty sentence, showing that the consequences of battery theft and site vandalism are of a very serious nature.

“The clear message that we want to send to criminals is that if you target our base stations, you will be caught and you will be prosecuted."

Last month, an MTN cell tower thief was jailed for 500 years. David Jenkins was found guilty of 25 counts of theft and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for each of the 25 counts, which collectively amounted to 500 years imprisonment.

However, the court suspended seven years of each of the 20 years, which resulted in an effective 13 years imprisonment for each count.