South Africa’s mobile network operators have to go to extreme lengths to protect the infrastructure installed at their base stations from theft and vandalism.
Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy told MyBroadband that base stations are increasingly being targeted for theft and vandalism by organised crime syndicates.
“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,” Kennedy said.
He added that multiple incidents of break-ins at Vodacom’s base station sites occur daily and that network providers lose hundreds of millions of rands due to damage at their base stations.
“It is estimated that local cellphone network providers lose hundreds of millions of rands worth of damage to its base stations annually as a result of theft and vandalism, which ultimately impacts the cost of mobile services,” he added.
MTN has noticed similar trends regarding crime at its base stations, with the network operator’s security measures preventing the theft of 2,174 batteries between January and March 2022.
This is according to MTN’s executive for corporate affairs, Jacqui O’Sullivan, who added that the network operator had recovered 259 stolen batteries over the same period.
“MTN’s effort in increasing security measures and introducing high tech solutions and on the ground strategies to prevent battery theft and vandalism at cell tower base stations is starting to see success,” she said.
O’Sullivan said 32 suspects had been apprehended over the three months.
O’Sullivan explained that MTN began its optimisation and resilience programme on backup power and security in 2020.
“Some of [the] actions taken include beefing up security significantly. Measures include hiring the private security company Bidvest, installing CCTV, cementing/hardening our battery storage and introducing cement and heavy steel safehouse carriages,” she said.
According to O’Sullivan, MTN’s efforts have been successful, with the company observing a 70% reduction in battery incidents from an average of 180 per month between January and December 2019.
“This year, for the first quarter from January to March, the number went down to less than 54 battery incidents resulting in a reduction of over 70% in battery losses,” she said.
Kennedy explained that Vodacom had to implement new security measures to protect its base stations.
“We have ramped up the fight against this criminal activity, implementing new security measures to make sure that the thieves are caught and prosecuted,” he said.
The new security measures 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 its batteries
Replacing lead batteries with lithium-ion batteries
Using the latest security technology to beef up security at its sites
In far-flung areas of our country, partnering with local community members and SAPS to secure sites
Working closely with law enforcement agencies and security companies to arrest thieves for prosecution
Kennedy added that local communities are its number one line of defence against vandalism.
“Therefore, we urge anyone who sees suspicious activity around our base stations to report it to the police by calling our toll free number: 082 241 9952 or SAPS on 10111,” he said.
“The clear message that we want to send to criminals is that if you target our base stations, you will be caught and you will be prosecuted,” Kennedy added.