Vodacom to engage community members to curb BTS battery theft in South Africa

In a move to curb and clamp down on incidents of battery theft in its base transmitter stations (BTS), Vodacom has decided to begin engaging community members working with police to serve as monitoring personnel to help safeguard its sites – especially in areas where the telco is hard hit by the vice in South Africa. The new approach forms part of measures Vodacom is rolling-out to secure its sites as incidents of site vandalism and battery theft keep on rising.

Incidents of base station vandalism have significantly gotten worse over the last few years. This is because the crime is being perpetuated by organised syndicates which are always finding new ways to commit such offences. It is estimated that local cellphone network providers lose hundreds of millions of rands worth of damage to their base stations annually because of theft and vandalism, which ultimately impacts the cost of mobile services.

(TOP: BTS batteries on a pick-up truck in South Africa).

Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub told the media last week that Vodacom will spend R1 billion ($55 million) in the current financial year to ensure the network in South Africa is able to cope with widespread electricity blackouts. Much of this investment will be used to intensify security around the telco’s base station sites, install additional batteries and generators to ensure connectivity during load shedding.

Said Joosub: “In the case of Vodacom, there has been a significant year on year increase in the number of battery thefts in our base stations, with the average increase at around 35%. For instance, on average 600 incidents per month are recorded where sites have been impacted by theft or damage. We are losing between R120-R130 million ($6.6 – 7.5 million) to vandalism and theft each year. Nonetheless, we are not sitting on our laurels and are fighting back by coming up with innovative measures to stem the tide of battery theft.”

Johan Van Graan, Chief Risk Officer for Vodacom Group says: “Our security teams on the ground have observed that quite often syndicates target base stations in far flung and secluded areas because they know it will take police a long time to react. Hence, our sites in remote areas are repeatedly hit. We are responding to this by testing a new model to secure these sites by forging partnerships with members of the community.”

“As part of this new model, we recruit local people to serve as monitoring personnel to be our eyes and ears on the ground and provide us critical information police can use to effect arrests. As part of this, we will provide locals with necessary training and accreditations, and link them to policing community forum and local SAPS to provide support when arrests must happen. This way you are helping to deal with the battery theft and base station vandalism problem while empowering local people with employment opportunities at a time when the local economy is struggling to create jobs.”

In all the provinces where this model is currently being tested, it has yielded positive results. For example, because Vodacom has enlisted services of local people to secure its sites, in sites that used to be hit every month, break-ins have now been reduced substantially. This demonstrates that the number one line of defence against site vandalism is the local community and vigilant community members who report incidents of battery theft or site vandalism to police.

Van Graan added: “Vandalism and battery theft is bad for us and our customers as it cuts off our customers from the network and is proving to be costly for us. Each theft incident can result in the network in that area being down for days, and can severely impact businesses as well as anyone relying on the internet to study. For a country like South Africa, which is currently on lockdown and the only way of connecting with loved ones spread across the country is via the cellphone, it can be stressful to not be able to reach loved ones because batteries in the base station near you have been stolen.”

Vodacom will continue to ramp up the fight against this criminal activity, and is working closely with law enforcement agencies and security companies to arrest thieves for prosecution. The telco has further appealed to the public to report any suspicious activity around its base stations to the police.


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