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ICASA chairperson bemoans telecoms infrastructure vandalism

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Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng, chairperson of the ICASA Council.
Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng, chairperson of the ICASA Council.

The theft and vandalism of telecoms infrastructure is “nothing short of a treasonous act”, says Independent Communications Authority of SA (ICASA) chairperson Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng.

Modimoeng, together with other ICASA officials including CEO Willington Ngwepe, yesterday briefed Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communications on the authority’s 2021/22 annual performance plan.

The ICASA Council chairperson detailed the social factors impacting the sector, noting the country’s high unemployment rate, especially among youth, poses a challenge.

This, in some instances, results in high levels of crime, he stated. “For the first time ever, over the past 24 months, we are battling a serious problem of vandalism in the telco space, where batteries from base stations are stolen and so forth.

“This is a direct link to the challenge that the social ills of crime have on the sector. As a result, there are network blackouts in many areas.”

Vandalism and battery theft has gotten significantly worse over the last few years, with criminal syndicates 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 mobile operators losing hundreds of millions of rands.

The multiple repeat incidents sometimes force the operators to abandon base stations due to nonviable replacement costs, thereby adversely impacting network availability or quality in some areas.

Last May, Vodacomnotedthere had been a significant year-on-year increase in the number of battery thefts at its base stations, with the average increase at around 35%.

At the time, the mobile operator said it was losing R120 million to R130 million to vandalism and theft each year.

Similarly, MTN revealed 703 batteries were stolen from its stations in January 2020, with a total of 122 incidents. MTN SA executive of corporate affairs Jacqui O’Sullivan said last January that MTN spent more than R100 million in the past year (2019) dealing with acts of theft and vandalism.

Despite this, both telcos have noted making gains in the fight against criminal syndicates targeting cell tower batteries.

Last July, a Cape Town man was sentenced to 500 years for stealing cell tower equipment from MTN.

The National Prosecuting Authority of SA said the Cape Town Regional Court Division of the Western Cape sentenced David Jenkins to 500 years imprisonment after he was found guilty of 25 counts of theft.

He was 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.

Referencing the aforementioned case, Democratic Alliance MP Cameron Mackenzie said what many people don’t realise is that when stealing batteries from base stations; they are in fact sabotaging telecommunications and state infrastructure.

Mackenzie asked if ICASA is doing any education or awareness campaigns about the offence of tampering with essential infrastructure, given the severe jail time.

Modimoeng explained: “The vandalisation of base stations and cellphone towers is nothing short of a treasonous act. It’s treason…the reason why the judgements are so severe is because when you vandalise a network station and you steal batteries – people might even lose their lives.

“Nowadays there is telemedicine and there is a high reliance on network and communications services. Sometimes the inability for people to make emergency calls can even claim lives.”

He welcomed the suggestion of an education drive to further prevent battery theft and vandalism, adding: “We’ve been conducting a number of interviews on various radio stations, especially on the SABC local language stations.

“We will continue to do so and we will have a very clearly defined champion campaign in our messaging framework.”

The chairperson once again reiterated concerns over a shrinking budget amid an expanding regulatory mandate, and told the committee that the sub-optimal funding model is a very serious problem.

“We are really constrained. Every time we appear before the committee, we say ‘our mandate is ever-expanding, yet our budgets are ever-shrinking’. This will make it difficult for us, in the long-run, to have a meaningful regulatory impact.”

Modimoeng also referenced the challenge of the economy’s subdued gross domestic product (GDP) growth, saying: “The work we do across the postal, broadcasting and telecoms are economic drivers. With GDP growth being subdued, there is also a direct impact in terms of investments made in the sector.”

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