Vodacom base stations under siege in KZN

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Vodacom says it has seen a dramatic rise in the number of base station vandalism and battery theft cases across KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and is now soliciting help from councillors and chiefs, to stop the destruction of its infrastructure.

The mobile carrier says it has been registering 70 cases per month from the province since the start of 2020, which translates to a monthly loss of R6.5 million from vandalism − a cumulative R80 million per annum.

Vodacom is now investing millions of rands in a range of solutions, including container claddings and surveillance cameras, to fight the scourge.

SA’s leading operator by subscriber numbers is blaming organised crime syndicates for destroying the only form of connectivity available to many outlying communities in the province.

The telco’s growing concern over base station vandalism and battery theft cases comes just a week after Vodacom announced a R320 million broadband infrastructure buildout in KZN, with the bigger chunk of the budget going to the underserved rural areas, during the 2020/2021 financial year.

SA’s mobile operators are increasingly bleeding money due to cases of theft and vandalism at base stations that are costing them hundreds of millions of rands.

“We lose millions of rands worth of damage to our base stations annually because of theft and vandalism. But more importantly than the monetary impact, criminals are cutting off entire communities,” says Chris Lazarus, managing executive for Vodacom KZN region.

“We are seeing a dramatic rise in the number of base station vandalism and battery theft cases across the province. We have registered 70 cases per month since the start of 2020, effectively 840 incidents of vandalism per annum. What we are finding through our investigations is that this crime is being perpetuated by organised syndicates who find new ways to commit this type of crime.”

Vodacom says cellular 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 says it repeatedly sees situations where communities cannot make emergency calls and are put in danger by these criminals, and sooner or later, these criminals will cost someone’s life.

As a result, Vodacom says it is ramping up efforts to stop destruction of infrastructure and has been driving engagements with communities, councillors and traditional leaders to assist with community educational campaigns.

"Crucially for us, the number one line of defence against site vandalism is the local community. 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," says Lazarus.

Vodacom KZN region works closely with law enforcement agencies and security companies to arrest thieves for prosecution. It says the region has had many successful arrests and prosecutions and a number of cases are before the courts.

In August, a man who stole equipment from mobile phone base stations in the Western Cape was handed a 500-year prison sentence by a regional court in Cape Town.

David Jenkins was imprisoned after he was found guilty of 25 counts of theft. He received 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.

“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," says Lazarus.

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