MTN is losing millions of rands to cellphone tower battery theft and vandalism.
In a statement on Thursday (15 August), the company said that thundreds of towers around the country are at risk of being permanently shut down, putting strain on the network and potentially diminishing the quality of the service provided to customers.
As many as 89 cell towers across the country are currently on hold as they await replacement batteries and maintenance fixes.
It added that 53 base stations have been completely destroyed and have had to be terminated nationally – 39 in Tshwane and 15 in Johannesburg.
“This situation leaves many South Africans without access to network services either because of downtime caused by repeated maintenance and repairs or in the extreme case of towers being terminated, where the regular theft and vandalism renders towers unsustainable,” said MTN GM of network operations Ernest Paul.
“This impacts on consumer’s access to emergency services, effective business operations and connecting with loved ones,” he said.
“This is a national problem and more communities and people need to realise they may experience no service at some point if this continues, as loss of services and network quality can range from a 2-5km radius to 15km on some sites and affect 5,000 to 20,000 people at any given time.”
According to Paul, the cost to fix those towers which can be brought back online is as much as R350 million. An added burden is that damage of this nature is not insurable.
“There is a misconception that this type of damage is insured,” Paul said.
“While you can get insurance for a major disaster, it is not feasible to insure a base station due to the high level of excess that would apply to claims of this nature,” he said.
Paul said that there is a risk if the theft of batteries is not stopped, these costs will escalate and eventually have to be passed on to consumers.
MTN is, however doing everything it can to avoid this and will provide monetary reward mechanisms for information which helps bring the criminals to book, he said.
“MTN is encouraging people who see anything suspicious – either at a site or when someone tries to sell a battery without any branded markings, or that looks used and doesn’t physically come out of a sealed box – to immediately report it to the police or any one of the theft tip-off lines.”
“As soon as levels of collaboration and general awareness improve, criminal activity slows down,” says Paul. “We saw this in the recovery of R1-million worth of batteries in Pretoria this past weekend.”