Ending telecoms infrastructure vandalism requires social partners to join forces

Takalani Netshitenzhe

Takalani Netshitenzhe

Published Feb 19, 2024


Takalani Netshitenzhe

The alarming levels of the destruction of telecommunications infrastructure by organised criminal syndicates in South Africa is costing mobile network players hundreds of millions of rands per annum.

More critically than the monetary impact, syndicates are cutting off entire communities and connected government schools from the digital economy and the net effect of this is a drastic reversal in the gains telco players have made in connecting the unconnected of this country since the dawn of our democracy in 1994.

Base stations of local network providers are increasingly being targeted for theft and vandalism. Investigations reveal that organised syndicates are behind this illicit activity and that they are coming up with sophisticated and unique approaches to perpetrate this crime.

Vandalism and battery theft is detrimental to us and our customers as it cuts off our customers from the network and is proving to be costly for us. For instance, 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.

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, batteries and even radio equipment, they can cut off thousands of people.

Vodacom repeatedly sees situations where communities cannot make emergency calls and are put in danger by these criminals and sooner or later, these criminals will cost someone’s life. Critically, when networks are not functioning optimally, this impacts quality of service standards set by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, designed to ensure consumers have optimal service.

The situation has gotten so bad in that on a daily basis local network providers experience multiple incidents of break-ins in their base stations. On average 600 incidents per month are recorded where our sites have been impacted by theft or damage.

We are losing between R120-R130 million to vandalism and theft each year. We see situations where our sites get vandalized to a point where everything gets stolen and it requires huge investment to restore sites.

Further and to mitigate the effects of sustained load shedding, Vodacom has spent circa R4bn in the past four years to enhance power resilience to our base stations during load shedding. These huge sums of money would be better spent in rolling-out more base station sites to connect scores of people who remain unconnected in this milieu.

It's a never-ending cycle because the syndicates are now targeting our sites to steal generators which we use as back-up power solutions to provide connectivity during load shedding.

What we are finding through our investigations, is that these syndicates are exploiting load shedding times to commit acts of vandalism. Syndicates are also getting desperate because as we improve security measures to counter vandalism on our sites, they are now targeting our warehouses and delivery cars.

We do recognise the competition policy relating to the energy crises by the

Department of Trade, Industry and Competition’s through the Block Exemption for Energy suppliers & Energy Users. These exemptions have within competition laws enabled mobile network operators to collaborate on energy projects, energy equipment procurement and security services and thus helping telcos to optimise resources. This demonstrates the willingness of government to assist the operators to continue providing quality service.

Nonetheless, we are not sitting on our laurels and are fighting back. We have ramped up the fight against this criminal activity, implementing new security measures to make sure that the thieves are caught and prosecuted. These include:

*Applying a combination of epoxy and glass around a battery’s housing to prevent criminals from cutting through the battery housing with tools such as grinders;

*Cementing the batteries in vaults and installing concrete cubes to house our batteries;

*Replacing lead batteries with lithium-ion batteries;

*Using the latest security technology to beef up security on our sites;

*In far flung areas of our country, we have partnered with local community members and SAPS to secure our sites;

*We are working closely with law enforcement agencies and security companies to arrest thieves for prosecution; and

*We launched a community-driven initiative to safeguard our infrastructure and therefore we urge anyone who sees suspicious activity around our base stations to report it to the police by calling our toll-free number: 0822419952 or SAPS on 10111.

We cannot combat this issue alone and appreciate that police and private security cannot be everywhere. Therefore, we appeal to community member to work with us in putting an end to these crimes. Together, we can ensure that entire communities are not deprived of essential communication services.

In the final analysis, ending vandalism requires government, private sector, churches, community groupings and NGOs to work together to stem the tide of vandalism and battery theft in the society.

At Vodacom, we have always argued that local communities are the number one line of defence against site vandalism and therefore we urge communities to partner us and report incidents of vandalism to police. Critically for us, government needs to enforce laws and institute harshest sentences to criminals that are destroying infrastructure.

Takalani Netshitenzhe is External Affairs Director at Vodacom South Africa.

The Star