Copper cable theft from last April to January had cost Telkom R863 million, the utility said yesterday.

The telecoms parastatal said the "alarming surge" in cable theft was the biggest inhibitor in its capability to improve service levels.

"The increase in copper cable theft is creating an environment of a rapidly deteriorating service quality and is severely affecting the delivery of sustainable services to customers," said the operations chief, Motlatsi Nzeku.

"In many high-theft areas, cable is repeatedly stolen, sometimes within days after replacements or repairs," he said. "We are observing a new trend in the deliberately determined cycle of theft. This is damaging businesses, depriving our customers of a basic service and, in some cases, adversely affecting their security."

Of the total cost, more than R200 million went to replace cable. Revenue loss to December was estimated at R520 million, and about R105 million was the cost for cable security.

Nzeku said Telkom would continue to "fight back" by installing alarms on critical and sensitive cable routes; by employing armed security firms; by implementing wireless technologies as alternatives; and, by assessing vulnerable aerial cable routes and, where feasible, relaying these underground.

The firm would work with the Non-Ferrous Theft Combatting Committee, run a national campaign to publicise its toll-free crime report line and engage with the government and relevant stakeholders.

Since routes had been fitted with alarms, 1 043 arrests has taken place and 157 people had been convicted, Nzeku said, but theft was still "spiralling out of control" and criminals had become more daring. - Sapa, With additional reporting by Thabiso Mochiko