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Vodacom enlists communities to fight infrastructure vandalism

Read time 4min 10sec

Vodacom has set in motion a new community-driven initiative to safeguard its infrastructure, as criminal syndicates are increasingly targeting mobile operators’ base stations.

The theft and vandalism of this infrastructure has resulted in mobile operators losing hundreds of millions of rands, and Vodacom has now enlisted communities to work with police in monitoring its base stations.

Vodacom says there has been a significant year-on-year increase in the number of battery thefts at its base stations, with the average increase at around 35%.

For instance, the telco says, on average 600 incidents per month are recorded where sites have been impacted by theft or damage.

“We are losing between R120-R130 million to vandalism and theft each year. Nonetheless, we are not sitting on our laurels and are fighting back by coming up with innovative measures to stem the tide of battery theft,” says Vodacom.

The telco says it will work with communities, especially in areas where Vodacom is being hard hit.

“This approach forms part of measures Vodacom is rolling-out to secure its sites as incidents of site vandalism and battery theft keep on rising.”

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

“Vandalism and battery theft is bad for us and our customers as it cuts off our customers from the network and is proving to be costly for us. 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,” says Johan van Graan, chief risk officer at Vodacom Group.

“For a country like South Africa, which is currently in lockdown and the only way of connecting with loved ones spread across the country is via cellphone, it can be stressful to not be able to reach loved ones because batteries in the base station near you have been stolen.”

Vodacom says the cases have significantly gotten worse over the last few years.

“This is because the crime is being perpetuated by organised syndicates who are always finding new ways to commit this type of crime. It is estimated that local cellphone network providers lose hundreds of millions of rands worth of damage to its base stations annually because of theft and vandalism, which ultimately impacts the cost of mobile services.”

The latest move by Vodacom comes just a week after group CEO Shameel Joosub told local media that the telco will spend R1 billion in the current financial year ensuring the network in SA is able to cope with widespread electricity blackouts.

Much of this investment will be used to intensify security around Vodacom’s base station sites, to install additional batteries and generators to ensure connectivity during load-shedding.

Explaining the new safety net the company is putting in place, Van Graan says: “As part of this new model, we recruit local people to serve as monitoring personnel to be our eyes and ears on the ground and provide us with critical information police can use to effect arrests. As part of this, we will provide locals with necessary training and accreditations, and link them to policing community forums and local SAPS to provide support when arrests must happen.

“This way you are helping to deal with the battery theft and base station vandalism problem while empowering local people with employment opportunities at a time when the local economy is struggling to create jobs.”

According to Van Graan, Vodacom security teams on the ground have “observed that quite often syndicates target base stations in far-flung and secluded areas because they know it will take police a long time to react. Hence, our sites in remote areas are repeatedly hit. We are responding to this by testing a new model to secure these sites by forging partnerships with members of the community.”

Vodacom says in all the provinces where this model is currently being tested, it has yielded positive results.

For example, “because Vodacom has enlisted services of local people to secure its sites, in sites that used to be hit every month, break-ins have now been reduced substantially. This demonstrates the number one line of defence against site vandalism is the local community and vigilant community members who report incidents of battery theft or site vandalism to police.”

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