Johannesburg - Criminal syndicates stealing batteries and copper cables from cellphone towers are costing the service providers millions of rand and plunging subscribers into network blackouts.
Network providers believe that the syndicate is highly organised and continuously comes up with the new ways to commit these crimes and evade arrest.
There was, however, some success on Monday when two suspects were nabbed with 10 boxes of cellphone tower batteries in Cosmo City, outside Roodepoort. They are due in court soon.
Each of the boxes had an estimated value of R14000, and last week two KwaZulu-Natal men appeared in the Esikhawini Magistrate’s Court, Richards Bay, for theft and possession of stolen property after they were caught with eight tower batteries.
Police spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Katlego Mogale said because this is a new phenomenon, the visible policing department of the police were still investigating the matter and establishing the cause of the rise in the targeting of cellphone towers.
All cellular base stations or cellphone towers are fitted with battery back-up systems to ensure there is enough power to run the system for several hours when there is a power outage.
With power outages happening frequently, these back-up battery systems become important to keep South Africa connected, but criminals have placed subscribers across the country at risk of losing network.
“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,” Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy said.
He warned that these thefts also placed lives at risk in cases of emergencies, and drive up the costs of mobile services to customers.
“We repeatedly see situations where people can’t make emergency calls and are put in danger by these criminals and sooner or later these criminal acts will cost someone’s life,” Kennedy said.
The batteries, which can cost R28000 and upwards, are a sought-after in the black market, especially in neighbouring countries.
MTN SA executive for corporate affairs Jacqui O’Sullivan said the network had 125 incidents of theft, attempted theft or vandalism at their cellphone towers across the country last week.
She added that 733 incidents were reported in April, and MTN's most hit areas were Soweto, Tembisa, Vereeniging and Parktown.
O’Sullivan said these criminal acts cost MTN millions of rand and the impact on the industry was “exorbitant”.
“We have, for instance, had to spend in the region of R11million to replace batteries at 100 sites across Gauteng.
“More broadly, we have had to spend over R200m on additional infrastructure to cover costs incurred by the damage to the cellphone towers,” he said.
Telkom spokesperson Nomalungelo Faku said the network experienced about 15 incidents per month and that the rate of vandalism and theft, especially multiple repeat incidents, sometimes forced the network to abandon base stations due to replacement costs that are not viable.
Faku said the biggest impact is lost revenue and inability to provide the service.
Vodacom’s Kennedy underlined that local network providers experience multiple incidents of break-ins at their base stations sites on a daily basis, especially those that are based in far-flung areas.
All three of the major networks emphasised that the industry was working with the security cluster to combat the scourge and added that communities also need to be educated on the issue.