Cable theft extends from copper to fibre, costs millions
The threat of cable vandalism and theft is by no means new to Africa. For the past few years, copper cable theft (as opposed to fiber optic) has been the main target. Although Africa’s infrastructure may be scattered, there are still thousands of miles of copper cable for criminals to target. Zimbabwe, and other countries with relatively limited Internet infrastructure, have seen more in terms of electrical cable theft. More developed nations experience copper theft, and the most connected are beginning to see fibre optic vandalism. Every year, South Africa, for example, lost millions of dollars worth of copper cables. In 2007, Telkom lost at least R571 in cable. That year, nearly R200 million was spent on replacing copper cables. Only R5.5 million was spent on fiber optic cables, but that figure is sure to grow.
The costs of the physical cable aren’t the only issue. Lorinda Nel, a project manager at Business Against Crime, says:
The indirect cost of cable theft also includes the loss of income, the disruption of essential services, labour costs to repair the affected networks, as well as security measures.”
Preventative measures, such as raising awareness of the problem, burying above-ground cables, setting alarms along the lines, creating armed patrols, and proposing legislation, have since produced positive results. A similar report from Kenya states that a public awareness campaign reduced vandalism by 50 percent. However, both articles suggest that fiber optic cables, along with wireless networking, are a solution to copper cable vandalism and theft.
Even with much lower resale value than copper, fiber optic cables have not fared much better than older lines in recent days. In fact, the past two weeks have seen a couple of reported incidents:
- Engineering News (South Africa): One of Seacom’s landlines experienced a nearly 3-hour outage on October 20th. The issue? “The feedback received from Neotel indicated that the downtime was caused by the theft of a pole along the primary route, which resulted in a cut in the fibre. The second route was immediately automatically activated but also suffered from multiple breaks due to theft and vandalism. After this second breakdown, Neotel had to physically reroute the services onto a third path and it is this manual process, which actually resulted in the downtime, explained the company.”
- Daily Nation (Kenya): Earlier in the week, Safaricom witnessed 5 cuts to its KDN line in a matter of four hours. Two were caused by other telecoms operators who were laying cables; the other two were the work of vandals. Telkom Kenya has also experienced vandalism to its lines to the tune of 30 million shillings a month.
Even more interesting is a report from Hellcom.co.za stating that criminals are using fiber optic cables to fashion bullet-proof vests. The sources, Democratic Alliance MP Pieter van Dalen, and an unidentified law enforcement official, have heard rumors from the streets. Many fiber optic lines do not use Kevlar, but some installations do. Still, most reports of fibre optic vandalism suggest that individuals are looking for copper rather than less valuable fiber optic cable. In these situations, the line is simply cut, and not stolen. Some critics of increased telecom competition point to sabotage, but such claims remain largely unfounded.
In conclusion, African nations will see more damage to fiber optic lines as vandals continue to seek copper or just cause mischief. As it is, many nations do not have extensive fiber optic networks. These nations lack the international media coverage of Kenya and South Africa, and little is known about the status of their Internet vandalism. Fortunately, internal public awareness campaigns and bans on exports or resale can effectively reduce the number of crimes. Increased media and government attention can also prevent an underground fiber optic market from taking hold. Telecom companies must not waste millions of dollars that can be applied to reducing broadband or mobile costs.