Cable theft – the cancer eating at the heart of the fixed network

Top Story

This week Cote d’Ivoire’s Union nationale des entreprises des télécommunications (UNETEL) called a press conference to protest against a rash of cable thefts. Vandalism is a constant problem for Africa’s fixed network operators. Like a cancer, it eats away both at the physical state of the network but also at traffic revenues and customer confidence. Usually this problem is generated by people stealing cables in the hope of reselling the copper obtained. Russell Southwood looks at the financial impact of this cancer on Africa’s fixed network operators.

UNETEL’S President . Loukou Kouadio Michel called for security to be reinforced around telecoms installations. He complained that since the beginning of the year there had been no less than 19 thefts of buried copper cable. He made the appeal in order to underline the importance of not allowing these thefts to compromise the running of the communications network of the country. He also emphasised that this kind of  theft endangered investment coming to the country in this strategic sector that employs more than 10,000 people.

Over 2005 and 2006 a number of companies have begun to quantify the cost of these thefts:

- In early 2005 Zambian incumbent Zamtel reported that it had lost $1.5 million through acts of vandalism and theft. The most persistent of these were the loss of both overhead and buried copper cables. Ironically most of this theft was carried out in the Copperbelt in Kitwe and Chingola where primary cables were repeatedly cut. The shut-downs caused by the thefts caused an estimated $1.7 million loss of customer revenues.

- In mid-2005 Tanzania’s incumbent announced that it had lost $152,380 in the first three months of that year. If vandalism continued at that rate, it would have lost just under a $1 million by the end of 2005. Again it was able to identify where the majority of incidents took place, apparently in Kinondoni. The theft of manhole covers over interconnecting cables cost it $40,000 alone in three months. It did not attempt to estimate lost revenues.

- In April 2006 Telkom Kenya announced that theft of this kind was costing it $6.1 million a year and that it was introducing wireless CDMA phones in part to try and combat the theft of hanging cables. It claimed that CDMA would be introduced country-wide by September 2008. Incidents have included its fibre ring in Nairobi being dug up in the mistaken belief that it was a copper cable and the thieves stealing part of it anyway.

As far as we know, no privately-owned operator – mobile or fixed – has identified losses due to thefts of this kind. Base stations tend to be better protected than fixed networks.

The primary motivation for this kind of theft is people seeking to raise money from selling copper cables. Similar incidents have occurred in South Africa leading to widespread system failure.  However, as the Kenya example shows, there is little or no way of them knowing that cables are copper and whether fibre has the same resale value. People in poor areas have long been known to steal power and in Nigeria, people tap into oil pipelines, often with tragic consequences.

There are few easy solutions to the problem. Greater use of wireless technologies are both cheaper and remove some of the easier temptations. However there have been occasional reports of wireless equipment itself being stolen. But with backhaul infrastructure there are few ways of either substituting it or indeed protecting it effectively.

The difficulty is that as African countries come increasingly to rely on things that need telephone networks then a solution will need to be found. The obvious solution is to increase the amount of redundancy in the networks available. This might be achieved by having more than one infrastructure provider (particularly in urban areas) with agreed emergency procedures between operators.

If your company has had problems with theft or vandalism and you want to share the problem or possible solutions, e-mail us on info@balancingact-africa.com