Mobile network operators are spending millions of rands on replacing stolen batteries and on security following a spate of vandalism at their cellphone tower sites.  

Tower vandalism is a significant issue affecting not only operators but consumers whose service may be cut off completely in some areas. Each theft incident can result in the network in that area being down for days, and can severely impact businesses and individuals. It can also cause ecological damage with vandalism resulting in diesel spillage.

“If a battery has been stolen, there’s no back up, and when sites are broken into, the vandalism often means that it increases the repair time, which means that towers are down for a long time,” said Karin Fourie, Cell C executive head of communications.

There is a risk that if the thefts aren’t contained, the additional costs incurred could be passed on to the consumer, as the cost of battery replacement and tower repairs continues to escalate.

Vodacom has seen a significant increase year-on-year in the number of battery thefts at its base stations, with the average increase at about 35%.  

“On average, 553 incidents a month are recorded where sites have been impacted by theft or damage. We are also seeing cases were the site has been damaged beyond economical repair,” said company spokesperson Byron Kennedy. “The cost of securing our sites has trebled.”  

Fourie said the “losses vary from month to month, increasing significantly during load-shedding periods, but over a year we experience a monthly average of about R830,000.”

Year to date, Cell C has lost about R5.3m to battery theft and the total for 2018 was just over R10m, said Fourie. 

For the continent's largest operator, MTN, the problem is no less significant in its home market. “MTN has experienced a 38% year-on-year increase from 2018 to 2019 on security costs. These costs include, but are not limited to, physical security deployments, technical security systems deployments, tactical interventions and special operations undertaken,” said Jacqui O’Sullivan, executive for corporate affairs at MTN SA. 

She said the price of an entry level cell tower battery is R28,000, so the total cost of replacing just the recently stolen 125 batteries is about R3.5m, excluding labour and the additional cost of vandalised infrastructure, such as power boxes and cables, at each tower, which could amount to hundreds of thousands of rand

Operators say battery theft is an issue of national concern but certain areas appear to be hot-spots for criminal activity.

MTN's worst hit areas are Johannesburg and Tshwane,  particularly Orange Farm, Soweto, Tembisa, the West Rand, Parktown and Vereeniging. Cell C said battery theft is more prevalent in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and along SA’s borders.

Between January and December 2018, more than 800 sites were broken into, with about 2,300 batteries stolen. From January to June 2019, almost 700 sites were vandalised with 812 batteries stolen from Cell C, the company said.  

Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal are the worst hit provinces for Vodacom, with a number of arrests and convictions being made in some provinces. 

Mobile operators are urging anyone who sees suspicious activity around base stations to report it to the police.