MTN says that battery theft and vandalism have left 89 cell towers "on hold" in South Africa as they await replacement batteries and maintenance fixes.
What is more shocking is that 53 basestations in Gauteng have been completely destroyed and have had to be terminated due to "severe damage and vandalism," 38 of which are in the Pretoria area and 15 in Johannesburg.
The good news is that MTN has recovered batteries to the value of almost R1 million ($65,900) in the past week alone, thanks to the involvement of the South African police, security personnel and ordinary South Africans. In May, five suspects were arrested and police also recovered 65 cell tower back-up batteries worth around R1.9 million ($125,000).
"While this is a step in the right direction, national cellular networks remain under increasing pressure, which may soon have a serious knock-on effect for the economy if battery theft continues at the pace that it is currently being experienced," the mobile operator said in a statement.
In the first half of the year, MTN said the cost to the industry has reached "an unsustainable tipping-point" and MTN general manager for network operations Ernest Paul said the damage to towers and infrastructure is far exceeding the cost of repairing and replacing batteries and equipment.
Paul said that severe vandalism is putting hundreds of towers around the country at risk of being permanently shut down, putting strain on the network and potentially diminishing the quality of the service provided to customers.
Over 50 of MTN's basestations in South Africa have been completely destroyed and have had to be terminated.
"The industry is under pressure to deal not only with improving security to curb theft of batteries and vandalism, but also having to pay increasing amounts to replace batteries and repair damage. These costs to date have been incurred by the network operators but may need to be passed onto the consumer if the mounting theft continues," Paul added.
He said the 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.
"This is a national problem and more communities and people need to realize they may experience no service at some point if this continues, as loss of services and network quality can range from a 2-5-kilometer radius to 15 kilometers on some sites and affect 5,000 to 20,000 people at any given time," Paul explained.
According to Paul, the cost of fixing those towers that can be brought back online is as much as R350 million ($23 million).
"There is a misconception that this type of damage is insured. 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 added.
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