Legal View

R1.2m cell tower batteries recovered as MTN fights back

Read time 3min 40sec
Picture source: Yusuf Abramjee.
Picture source: Yusuf Abramjee.

MTN’s effort in increasing security measures and introducing high tech solutions and on the ground strategies to prevent battery theft and vandalism at cell tower base stations is starting to see success with as many as 143 batteries, worth R1.2 million, recovered in January 2020.

However, the battle rages on with syndicates targeting base stations in early 2020 as battery theft incidents rise, the mobile operator says.

It notes that a total of 338 batteries worth R4 million stolen from MTN base stations were recovered in July last year, with 275 batteries worth almost R3 million recovered in September.

The number of arrests also ticked up appreciably to an annual high of 22 in September, the company says.

In another major victory, MTN says three suspects were apprehended in October last year in a joint operation between Bidvest Protea Coin and the SAPS.

A total of eight MTN Lithium Ion Batteries and eight Telkom Lead Acid batteries were recovered, and sentences of between five to 10 years were meted out by the magistrate on 28 January for the offence of tampering with essential infrastructure.

“This is an excellent breakthrough in the work and determination between the Madelene SAPS and Bidvest Protea Coin as these individuals were classified as a syndicate within the area,” says Ernest Paul, MTN general manager for network operations.

“What this and the other small successes show is that when the public, industry and security and police forces work together, we can make a dent in criminal activity. However, as recent trends indicate, there is still much to be done and we must anticipate a greater fightback from criminals and sophisticated syndicates in the months ahead and be ready.”

Last month, MTN suspended the services of a service provider following allegations that it facilitated battery thefts at base stations.

This as criminal syndicates are increasingly targeting South African mobile operators’ base stations, stealing or vandalising critical infrastructure like batteries, copper cables and diesel.

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

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

According to MTN, recent statistics show that 703 batteries were stolen from MTN stations in January 2020 with a total of 122 incidents. Cable theft also increased over December and January, with 109 incidents in January.

“The reality is criminal syndicates are looking for ways around the security measures and this has again raised the bar for the industry and the public, working hand-in-hand hand with law enforcement and security companies,” Paul says.

“A lot more work needs to be done to stay a step ahead, especially as vandalism at base stations can keep many consumers offline for long periods, or even completely destroy the base station, leaving people with no access at all.”

MTN says all national cellular networks remain under increasing pressure to improve recoveries and reduce theft as the knock-on effects will become more severe if left unchecked.

It says new rounds of load-shedding are increasing the risks, with networks placed under increased strain to get power back up.

The battery back-up system generally takes 12-18 hours to recharge, while batteries generally have a capacity of 6-12 hours, depending on the site category.

“Network coverage is lost if we do not have batteries, while cases of vandalism, cable theft and diesel theft remain high,” says Paul. “We need everyone to join forces if we are to truly fight back against the sophisticated syndicates behind these crimes, and MTN is certainly doing that early in 2020 to ensure we limit the damage and ensure our customers still get quality network coverage.

“Collective efforts are crucial when fighting crime especially when it affects consumers and the general community when they need it most. We urge everyone to work even harder in 2020 to win this war – and please report anything suspicious to the authorities,” concludes Paul.

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