Criminals are destroying South Africa's mobile infrastructure - TechCentral

Criminals are destroying South Africa’s mobile infrastructure

There has been an alarming rise in incidents of battery theft from cellphone towers in South Africa and urgent action is needed to address the situation, MTN said on Monday.

The mobile operator said it recorded 125 incidents of battery theft last week, from 74 the week before, and that a “greater fightback is needed to avoid the costs of replacing batteries and fixing damaged infrastructure being passed on to consumers”.

The company has called for a “stronger and more concerted drive to clamp down on syndicates and opportunistic criminals”.

It said the worst-hit areas are currently Soweto, Tembisa, Vereeniging and Parktown. But, it emphasised, the problem is national in scope and affects all network providers.

“Battery theft and related vandalism is costing MTN hundreds of millions of rand and the impact on the entire industry is exorbitant, said MTN South Africa GM for network operations Ernest Paul. Paul said 733 batteries were stolen from the company’s sites countrywide in April.

“There is a high cost to customers and network providers each time a battery is stolen, keeping in mind that as many as four to 16 batteries need to be replaced at each site,” he said. “To replace batteries at 100 sites, for instance, would cost well over R10-million and then several more millions would be required to cover the costs of fixing the damage done to the cellphone towers.”

‘Extensive damage’

“We must avoid the costs of these thefts impacting the consumer, so shutting down these criminals has to be a priority. If left unchecked, entire communities, individual customers and small businesses alike, in affected areas, will struggle to access their mobile services as the theft comes with extensive damage to the entire network infrastructure.”

Although MTN has improved security at some sites, recent incidents have become increasingly violent, with guards being abducted, assaulted and shot at.

“The best way to start fighting back is for anyone spotting something suspicious on a site to report it immediately. There are various tip-off lines to call. Alternatively, report it to the police,” said Paul.

“We are constantly looking at ways to eradicate the problem of battery theft. However, everyone has a role to play… MTN will provide monetary reward mechanisms for information which helps bring the criminals to book.”

MTN said anyone buying batteries should make sure they know their origin. “It is important to realise they may be buying stolen goods if the asking price is way below the market price of about R28 000/battery,” he said. “If a battery has any markings or may look used and doesn’t physically come out of a sealed box, then it could be stolen. Criminals often also look to sell these stolen batteries on social media platforms like Facebook. Batteries are increasingly sought on black markets — especially in neighbouring countries.”

The major mobile operators in South Africa make use of one brand, Leoch lithium batteries, which are imported solely by Average Technologies and these are not for sale to the general public, MTN said.

“However, other agreements are in place for other lithium battery suppliers. These brands include Huawei and Coslight. Lead-acid batteries include Narda and Shoto. Generally, these batteries are for the exclusive use of the telecommunications sector and are not sold to the commercial solar industry.”

Greater community involvement and awareness can make an immense difference, MTN said.

“It is time to fight back and this starts with all South Africans playing their part. One simple call can make a world of difference in what has now become an endemic problem which is affecting all South Africans,” said Paul.

MTN said people can report cellphone tower battery theft to Bidvest Protea on 0861011721 or the MTN fraud line on 0831237867. They can also send an e-mail to — © 2019 NewsCentral Media

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