Cell phone reception during load shedding
(Getty Images)
  • Back-up battery systems used to power mobile networks' base stations are being stolen at an alarming rate.
  • South Africa's three major network providers have all recorded a surge in the theft of batteries and copper cables since the start of the year.  
  • This coincides with the recent bout of load shedding, which has further reduced network coverage across the country.
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South Africa's major mobile network providers have all noticed a surge in the theft of base station infrastructure following the relaxation of lockdown levels. This has led to widespread coverage outages during load shedding as reception towers are left without backup battery power.

The theft of batteries and copper cables which provide power to base stations is on the rise, with criminal syndicates becoming more advanced and the black-market growing due to South Africa's volatile electrical grid.

READ | MTN says criminal gangs are stealing cellphone tower batteries - and selling them for R5,000

The country's largest mobile network operator, Vodacom, says it records an average of 700 incidents of battery theft and base station vandalism per month. Vodacom spent R1 billion on replacing stolen batteries and equipping base stations with diesel generators in just six months in 2020. And incidents of vandalism and theft have increased since South Africa exited hard lockdown. 

"Although incidents of base station vandalism came down following the strict lockdown restrictions, as lockdown regulations have been eased, cases of battery theft and vandalism are picking up," a Vodacom spokesperson told Business Insider South Africa.

"This is because organised syndicates are coming up with unique approaches to commit this crime."

MTN has reported similar findings, explaining that incidents of theft and vandalism had increased by 20% to 378 from April to May. And while cases of battery theft have decreased by a third – to 52 incidents in May – MTN reports that copper theft had risen by almost 50% during the same period.

"Although the vandals and thieves have a direct impact on network availability and stability, load shedding and load reduction, which has increased over the past five years, has emerged as the biggest contributor to our challenges," explains Ernest Paul, MTN SA's general manager for network operations.

"Constant outages have a direct impact on the performance of the batteries, while theft of the batteries themselves means replacements need to be installed."

Telkom reports that it has been hardest hit by the sudden spike in theft, with 7,841 batteries – an average of 650 a month – stolen in the last year alone. Telkom says it could have built approximately 35 new base stations with the money spent on replacing stolen batteries.  

"Ever wondered why your cellular network connections weaken when there's load-shedding in your area? It is the ripple effect of theft of batteries at base stations of mobile service providers and vandalism of network infrastructure," explained Telkom in a statement issued on Thursday.

Base station batteries can maintain network coverage for between six and 12 hours during bouts of load shedding. The batteries generally take between 12 and 16 hours to recharge. Extended load shedding hours reduce the batteries' ability to recharge to full capacity and theft further diminishes the coverage area, particularly in regions which rely on single towers.

While progress has been made in combatting theft in urban areas, like Johannesburg and Tshwane, MTN says it's noticing a spike in incidents in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo.

To further reduce incidents of theft, MTN is introducing stronger battery safes at its base stations while equipping tracking devices which will aid in the recovery of stolen batteries and the apprehension of criminals.

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