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MTN SA enlists communities to fight infrastructure theft, vandalism

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MTN South Africa is joining forces with Community Police Forums (CPF) to tackle network infrastructure theft and vandalism in the country.

"With the ongoing vandalism and theft of batteries and cables at cellphone towers across South Africa, MTN has partnered with the Gauteng Provincial Community Police Board to support Community Policing Forums to accelerate the fight against this type of crime," the operator said in a statement.

The aim is to protect MTN's network tower infrastructures and minimize network downtime, using technology to prevent and reduce incidents of vandalism and theft at cell towers.

MTN SA CEO Charles Molapisi said that persistent power cuts in recent months have resulted in a significant increase in theft of network assets and vandalism of MTN's tower infrastructure.

"These criminal activities come at a high cost to the company and they also prevent communities from accessing the network and staying in touch and connected to work, the emergency services and to each other. The effect is devastating on lives and livelihoods, and this is why we are ramping up prevention measures in the communities we serve," Molapisi explained.

Rolling blackouts – known locally as 'load shedding' – have been happening intermittently in SA since November 2007 and have become a daily occurrence over the past few years.

Load shedding is the deliberate shutdown of electric power in parts of the power distribution system when capacity is strained. State-owned power utility Eskom turns off different suburbs at different times – for two to four hours at a time – to try to manage the overall power supply in the country.

However, during these blackouts there is often a spike in vandalism and battery or generator theft at telecoms network sites which is very costly for local telecoms operators.

MTN SA CEO Charles Molapisi.   (Source: MTN SA)
MTN SA CEO Charles Molapisi.
(Source: MTN SA)

In March 2023, MTN said it would invest US$84.3 million in South Africa to help mitigate ongoing power blackouts in the country and plans to get its basestations completely off grid in the future.

At the time it said it was launching a nationwide program aimed at warding off the negative impact and frustration caused by power cuts, theft and vandalism.

That was after MTN Group reported that blackouts in SA had impacted earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) by $38 million for the financial year ended December 31, 2022.

New crimefighting initiative

For the pilot phase of the CPF partnership, currently being rolled out in Soweto, a command center has been set up with laptops, printers and other equipment to gather data.

MTN said technology such as CCTV and Wi-Fi points will be harnessed to detect criminal activity and alert responders. In addition, CPF members will also receive new uniforms and equipment like panic buttons and handcuffs "to ensure they are armed for any eventuality."

Gauteng is South Africa's smallest but most populous province with a population of about 15 million out of SA's 62 million, according to the 2022 national census .

"Communities must own the technology infrastructure and defend it by using intelligence and the crime prevention measures of the South African Police Service (SAPS) and other law enforcement agencies," said TJ Masilela, the executive chairperson of Gauteng Provincial Community Police Board.

"Fighting criminal tendencies and infrastructure damage needs a multi-integrated approach. CPFs, through our force multiplier community patrollers intelligence from the community crime intelligence network, have a chance to make difference and win the war against crime," Masilela added.

Follow Connecting Africa on our new X account @connect__africa to get the latest telecoms and tech news across Africa.

Molapisi believes that collaboration will ensure that criminals are brought to book and syndicates dismantled.

MTN SA is planning broader measures in phase two of the initiative and wants to roll the project out across the country to better protect network sites with the help of communities.

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*Top image source: MTN SA

— Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa

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