Community support, awareness needed to eradicate cell tower battery theft and vandalism, says MTN

The concerning rise in battery theft and vandalism at cell phone towers across the country requires a stronger and more concerted drive to clamp down on syndicates and opportunistic criminals.

According to MTN, which recorded 125 incidents of battery theft in South Africa last week from 74 the week before, a greater fightback is needed to avoid the costs of replacing batteries and fixing damaged infrastructure being passed on to consumers.

The worst hit areas are currently Soweto, Tembisa, Vereeniging and Parktown, however, this is a national problem affecting all mobile networks.

“Battery theft and related vandalism is costing MTN hundreds of millions of rand and the impact on the entire industry is exorbitant. Recent data shows MTN had 733 batteries stolen from its sites across the country in April,” says Ernest Paul, General Manager: Network Operations at SA’s leading network provider MTN.

There is a high cost to customers and network providers each time a battery is stolen, keeping in mind that as many as 4-16 batteries need to be replaced at each site. To replace batteries at 100 sites, for instance, would cost well over R10m and then several more millions would be required to cover the costs of fixing the damage done to the cell phone towers.

“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,” explains Paul.

While battery theft is a countrywide problem committed by increasingly brazen and sophisticated criminal syndicates, MTN believes the war can be won if everyone works together.

“We are constantly looking at ways to eradicate the problem of battery theft. However, everyone has a role to play. While operators are under siege from these thieves, the people most affected are South Africans, who rely on their mobile connectivity for home and work, and for their safety and security systems,” continues Paul.

While MTN has beefed up security significantly and has achieved important successes in the fight through the adoption of a “360-degree” action plan, recent incidents have become increasingly violent, with some guards even 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”, explains Paul.

MTN will provide monetary reward mechanisms for information which helps bring the criminals to book.

Potential buyers of batteries should also make sure they know the origin of what they are buying. It is important to realize they may be buying stolen goods if the asking price is way below the market price of about R28,000 a battery,” says Paul.

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 neighboring countries.

Potential buyers should be aware that 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. However, other agreements are in place for other lithium battery suppliers. These brands include Huawei and Coslight. Lead Acid batteries would 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 notes that in the wake of a recent exposé by the TV show Carte Blanche, on the extent of battery theft in the country, the company has managed to recover 400 stolen batteries thanks to the assistance of communities, consumers and businesses, who all heard the call and decided to act.

“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,” concludes Paul.

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