Criminal syndicates wreak havoc at telco base stations

Read time 6min 20sec

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.

ITWeb interviewed local telcos to gauge how serious this problem is, and they all indicated the fight against theft and vandalism at base stations is far from over.

Escalating costs

Jacqui O’Sullivan, executive for corporate affairs at MTN SA, says the operator experiences five to 20 incidents of theft or vandalism per day.

She notes there is a high cost to customers and the network providers each time equipment such as a battery is stolen.

“We have, for instance, had to spend in the region of R11 million to replace batteries at 100 sites in Gauteng. More broadly, we have had to spend R285 million on additional infrastructure to fix what was broken.”

According to O’Sullivan, these costs keep escalating as crime continues to impact the network providers.

“The cost of repairs and equipment is rapidly becoming unsustainable and in a few cases, the base stations have been decommissioned due to the unsustainable cost of repairs,” she says.

“This is an opportunistic crime and many of these batteries seem to leave the country – which is interesting as it means criminals in other countries are choosing not to steal from their own networks. There has been a dramatic increase in recent months where many batteries are intercepted en-route to places like Zimbabwe and Malawi,” says O’Sullivan.

MTN is also seeing losses of other network infrastructure like copper cables, radio equipment and locks. “In several cases, every movable piece of equipment has been stolen and most likely sold as scrap. There has been a spike in fuel thefts and recently generators are being stolen when used as backup power.”

O’Sullivan says MTN has beefed up security significantly and has achieved immense recent successes in the fight against theft and vandalism, but the battle is far from over.

She notes that initiatives like the criminal vetting of suppliers are already bearing fruit. MTN also plans to have full detection and monitoring on all base transceiver station sites, which will bring about full monitoring and protection.

O’Sullivan says customers can report any suspicious activities to 086 101 1721 or 012 665 8037.

“We also encourage consumers to ensure they can verify the origin of these batteries before buying equipment. Consumers are discouraged to purchase any batteries from social media platforms. There is a high risk that this may be stolen equipment.”

Cutting off communities

According to Byron Kennedy, Vodacom spokesperson, base stations of local network providers are increasingly being targeted for theft and vandalism, and “what we are finding through our investigations is that organised syndicates are coming up with unique approaches to commit this crime”.

He points out it is estimated that local cellphone network providers lose hundreds of millions of rands due to damage to 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, Kennedy says criminals are cutting off entire communities.

“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 and mainly batteries, they can cut off hundreds if not thousands of people.

“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. It can also cause ecological damage with vandalism resulting in diesel spillage. We repeatedly see situations where people can't make emergency calls and are put in danger by these criminals and sooner or later, these criminals will cost someone’s life,” Kennedy adds.

However, Vodacom is fighting back, he says. “We have ramped up the fight against this criminal activity, implementing new measures to make sure the thieves are caught and prosecuted. We are working closely with law enforcement agencies and security companies to arrest thieves for prosecution.”

He adds that just recently, in partnership with SAPS, members of the community and security teams from Vodacom and MTN, they recovered over 80 batteries and apprehended two suspects, who belong to a syndicate that has long targeted batteries from the base station sites of local cellphone providers across KwaZulu-Natal.

“This is good news for Vodacom since, through this operation, we are closing in on one of the biggest syndicates operating in the country. We are also happy at this outcome as it demonstrates that our appeal to partner members of the community and SAPS is yielding results. A lot more work lies ahead as the syndicates intensify their efforts.”

Kennedy says crucially, 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. We’d like to urge ordinary members of the community to report incidents of battery theft or site vandalism by calling our toll-free number: 082 241 9952 or SAPS on 10111.”

Lost revenue

Telkom says it has over 5 500 base stations and some of these are in very remote areas, which works to the advantage of vandals.

“We have security measures in place to mitigate against theft but it is not always practical to prevent theft at all sites,” the operator says.

“Battery theft costs Telkom millions of rands in direct replacement of batteries and repair of base stations. However, the biggest impact is in the form of lost revenue and poor customer experience due to lack of service.”

In notes that copper cables, rectifiers, air-conditioners, base station equipment and cards, diesel for generators, as well as the generators themselves and generator batteries, have been hugely targeted.

“Each and every base station is assessed and solutions are based on these assessments. Our range of solutions includes but is not limited to armed response, remote alarm detection, special cabinets against forced entry, electronic locking systems, integrated access control measures, etc,” says Telkom.

Cell C says rates of theft are dramatically on the increase, at 100% per annum in some places.

The operator is deploying security cameras which are helping to facilitate swifter armed response times against the criminal acts.

“We are losing millions on a monthly basis, not taking into account the damages caused when sites are broken into and vandalised,” says Cell C.

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