“It is an industry problem and it cannot be left to the companies to deal with alone. Although we have improved security and are assisting the police in making arrests, everyone needs to step up and report this before it becomes a bigger problem. While we are making strides in patrolling key sites and helping the police catch criminals, it ultimately needs broader participation.”
Says O’Sullivan: “We understand that this can be a frustrating time for most South Africans. By fitting our towers with these batteries, we are striving to ensure that our customers remain connected with loved ones and can access the various services they need.”
MTN says it has beefed up security significantly and has achieved immense recent successes in the fight against theft and vandalism, but the battle is far from over.
“There is a high cost to customers and the network providers each time a battery is stolen,” says Paul. “We have, for instance, had to spend in the region of R11m to replace batteries at 100 sites in Gauteng. More broadly, we have had to spend R285m on additional infrastructure to fix what was broken.”
Initiatives like the criminal vetting of suppliers is already bearing fruit. MTN also plans to have full detection and monitoring on all base transceiver station (BTS) sites by May this year, which will bring about full monitoring and protection.
“However, everyone out there needs to help in the fight – if you know something then tell us or the police,” says Paul.
This could entail seeing “something fishy” on a site when travelling past a tower. Potential buyers for batteries in commercial use should make sure they know the origin of what they are buying, he says.
“If someone is installing a battery commercially then ask where it comes from. If it potentially has any markings or may look used and doesn’t physically come out of a sealed box, then it could be suspicious. Don’t buy batteries if not supplied by a reputable supplier. We often find criminals selling these batteries on social media platforms like Facebook.”
Cellphone tower batteries are often black, with a red trim on top, as depicted in the accompanying picture. Other batteries in use are mainly red in colour with a small black trim but the black or grey lead acid 12V battery in the next picture is one to watch out for as it is a popular target for syndicates because it can be used to power household appliances like televisions or microwave ovens. While most household equipment won’t work on a 48-volt Lithium ion battery, 48-12-volt convertors are being used.
Says Paul: “This is an opportunistic crime and many of these batteries seem to leave the country – which is interesting as it means criminals in other countries are choosing not to steal from their own networks. We are making inroads through a lot of interventions, but everyone has a role to play. With further Eskom power cuts likely in the future, it is time we all tried to cut out the scourge of battery theft.”
O’Sullivan says MTN has prioritised battery theft at a national level.
“Tasks teams have been deployed and support and maintenance crews are working additional shifts to restore connectivity as quickly as possible. We are making inroads through a lot of interventions, but we encourage members of the public to report any suspicious behaviour or activity as it relates to battery theft.”
Efforts to address the issue through harsher sentences for copper theft and amendments to the Second-Hand Goods Act, to regulate buying and selling of copper, appear to have had little impact. Such efforts require more active policing, which is a challenge in its own right.