In our mission of digital empowerment for all our people in South Africa, we face a constant battle against vandalism of network sites around the country.
The scale of the problem is enormous, and the cost of repairing and protecting our sites affects our ability to roll out connectivity in areas that need it most.
Most cases of damage or vandalism involve criminals who break into shelters at mast sites to steal valuable material such as batteries, which are used as back-up power sources.
Thieves, often from criminal syndicates target batteries, copper cable or make off with specialised radio equipment. Damage and theft of all of these elements have varying impacts on service levels provided by radio sites. Sometimes, there is also wilful, malicious damage at the site.
Impacts on the network and service levels to customers
All in all, these various incidents have impacts on the network and service levels to customers. When batteries are stolen without further damage, the site still operates, and our customers enjoy normal levels of service.
If we lose power to the site service is still impacted. However, a nearby site, or one of our roaming partners’ sites should be able to pick up the service.
On the other hand, this is not the case of load shedding or multiple vandalised sites in a cluster area where a wide area is impacted as, neighbouring sites cannot ‘cover for each other’. In these cases, the vandalism will lead to outages on our mobile network in that area.
Even where other operators are possibly able to support the network, there might be issues with back-up power: vandalism and theft of infrastructure impacts all operators in South Africa. As such there are often overall disruptions to mobile networks during load shedding because batteries have been stolen or vandalised.
All damage must be repaired – often at incredibly short notice – to restore connectivity at the site. These repairs have a massive impact on the operating costs of our business. This affects our ability to connect people to a better life, as the most affordable provider of mobile services.
The running costs to repair can represent up to 20% of our Business as Usual capital expenditure. On top of this, we must spend vast amounts maintaining and protecting our sites.
Cost of vandalism is real
Last year we lost a total of 7,841 batteries. The money spent replacing those batteries could have been built 35-40 base stations, to give people better coverage. The opportunity cost of vandalism is real – it reduces affordable, accessible digital coverage. Vandalism is a selfish, short-sighted act that limits progress for our people.
Today, mobile connectivity is the key to schooling, training, tertiary education, job search and remote working. Vandalism means South Africans that need opportunities the most, are unable to access them. Connectivity has been even more crucial during the pandemic.
The World Bank has shown a direct relation between broadband penetration and economic growth (GDP). Our infrastructure drives this broadband penetration and helps us progress economically. Vandalism literally sabotages that.
As influencers in your communities, encourage your friends, families and neighbours to report any suspected site vandalism on our hotlines. Neighbourhood watches and community groups can also help to protect our infrastructure by spreading the word about site vandalism, sharing information and using our hotlines.
Another way to help is to simply keep our eyes open as we move around our cities and to report any damaged sites or signs of vandalism.
There are six channels where community members can report vandalism as part of our Vulumlomo/Speak Up programme – a hotline, website, WhatsApp, email, SMS or by mail.
For more information, visit this link.
Site vandalism is stopping us from connecting our people to a better life. We all have a role to play in spreading the word and helping to fight it. Let’s protect our infrastructure and keep our people connected!