File photo: Simphiwe Mbokazi/AfricanNewsAgency/ANA.

JOHANNESBURG – The costly replacement of stolen cellphone tower batteries has forced mobile telecommunications company MTN to shut down 53 towers in Gauteng.

The company said it was losing millions due to the vandalism and theft of tower batteries. The 53 towers have been completely destroyed. 

In the first half of 2019, the cost to the industry has reached an unsustainable tipping-point with MTN General Manager: Network Operations, Ernest Paul, saying the damage to towers and infrastructure is far exceeding the cost of repairing and replacing batteries and equipment. 

Another major problem is that some acts of vandalism are so severe that hundreds of towers around the country are at risk of being permanently shut down, putting strain on the network and potentially diminishing the quality of the service provided to customers.

Cellular companies have in recent times been hit by rising incidents of theft of tower batteries, causing network disruptions for customers. 

Recovered stolen cellphone tower batteries. Photo: SAPS.

MTN said it managed to recover batteries valued at nearly R1 million in the past week alone with help of la enforcement authorities and whistleblowers. The company lost 73 batteries across the country in April. One battery reportedly costs between R30,000 and R40,000.

Paul said as many as 89 cell towers across the country were currently on hold as they await replacement batteries and fixing. Of the 53 towers being shut down, 39 are in Pretoria and 15 in Johannesburg.  

“This situation leaves many South Africans without access to network services either because of downtime caused by repeated maintenance and repairs or in the extreme case of towers being terminated, where the regular theft and vandalism renders towers unsustainable. This impacts on consumer’s access to emergency services, effective business operations and connecting with loved ones," said Paul.

“This is a national problem and more communities and people need to realise they may experience no service at some point if this continues, as loss of services and network quality can range from a 2 to 5km radius to 15km on some sites and affect 5,000 to 20,000 people at any given time."

According to Paul, the cost of fixing towers so they can be brought back online can be as much as R350 million, adding that his company has already fixed 100 sites at a high cost.

“Cellular companies cannot do this alone. A broader initiative needs to be driven by communities, the private sector, police and prosecutors. We have therefore adopted a 360-degree plan that permeates across our business and have noticed that when combined with greater community awareness and involvement, an immediate dent is made in criminal activities."

African News Agency (ANA)