MTN suspends service provider after battery theft allegations

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Jacqui O’Sullivan, executive for corporate affairs at MTN South Africa.
Jacqui O’Sullivan, executive for corporate affairs at MTN South Africa.

Mobile operator MTN has suspended the services of a service provider following allegations that it facilitated battery thefts at base stations.

The operator has now launched an investigation into Isizathu Projects after a person claiming to be an employee of the service provider made allegations on social media that the company sub-contracted by Bidvest Protea Coin to oversee MTN’s base stations was stealing batteries from the mobile operator.

According to a report in Sunday World, the person said they were instructed by their manager to do an “extra/side job” whenever they were maintaining alarm systems at MTN base stations.

It quotes the person as tweeting: “Every time [when] we work, we don’t lock the container and come back after for batteries.”

In an e-mailed response to ITWeb, Jacqui O’Sullivan, executive for corporate affairs at MTN South Africa, says: “We are aware of the allegation made by the Twitter user; the matter has been escalated to all relevant parties including MTN forensic and investigative division, Bidvest Protea Coin and Isizathu Projects management.

“We can also confirm that Bidvest Protea Coin is a main contractor appointed by MTN SA to oversee our base stations (masts), Isizathu Projects is sub-contracted by Bidvest Protea Coin.”

According to O’Sullivan, MTN spent more than R100 million in the past year dealing with acts of theft and vandalism.

“These crimes tend to spike during load-shedding when the lack of power sees substations being vandalised for copper wire which then further exacerbates the power supply problem, when electricity is meant to be restored.

“MTN has had to deploy security teams around the country to protect the equipment at these sites (hence the appointment of Bidvest).

“Isizathu Projects services have been suspended pending the outcome of the current investigation.”

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.

In August last year, MTN recovered batteries to the value of almost R1 million in one week alone, thanks to the involvement of the SAPS, security personnel and ordinary South Africans.

Byron Kennedy, Vodacom spokesperson, recently told ITWeb that 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 pointed 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.

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