Mobile phone operator, MTN, says the vandalism of network infrastructure towers is hurting the ailing South African economy even further.

His warning follows the recent burning of cellphone network tower infrastructure amid bogus claims the coronavirus pandemic is linked to 5G.

On Thursday, Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams condemned the torching of three towers belonging to Vodacom and MTN in KwaZulu-Natal, warning that the disinformation campaign was a threat to infrastructure investments.

The destruction of the towers result in poor internet connection, and often no calls.

For 52-year-old Diane Johnson it is a losing battle as there’s no signal in Noordgesig.

“The network is like that, hanging up again, it’s still clean. It cuts your phone calls and the network when you want to go on internet; it says strictly no network.”

Forced to leave her property for a connection, the curfew adds more anxiety for Johnson.

“I have to go out of the yard and go to the next street, then I’ll find maybe four-minute network, then it’s finished. It’s a little bit dangerous because we are not supposed to go out, especially at 9 o’clock, because it’s curfew time; what must we do?”

Just meters away from Johnson’s home is a base station, covering Noordgesig’s 5km radius.

It was broken into on Thursday night, wires cut off and stolen with CCTV cameras not spared either. The sought after batteries, at least out of reach, were secured by concrete. However, the service disabled.

Diepkloof resident Mabandla Dubazane says the service becomes worse when there is no electricity.

“It becomes worse when there is no electricity or even if there is power, your phone might be useless.”

“When you put your data is a problem because it won’t go in your phone; it will show there is a network problem,” says resident Anita Fries.

“It gives you a signal for two or three seconds, five seconds, phone is ringing; all of a sudden there is no signal, no service,” says resident Xavier Baron.

Cell tower sites have been plagued with theft and vandalism in the past years. It’s a constant threat to a vital service.

Ernest Paul, MTN General Manager: Network Operations, has been looking into the disruptive trend.

He says this problem is not just in urban areas; some rural areas are the hardest hit.

“This is not ideal for the economy, it’s not ideal for the country or the industry at large…This is our ability to monitor the network, keep a constant eye and know when to react,” Paul says.

Rural areas vulnerable

Rural areas are more vulnerable and Limpopo is the hotspot.

“70% of our infrastructure pertaining to battery stolen is in the northern province, which is a big concern because our ability to go back and repair it’s going to take a couple of years….Out of a 1 500 base stations in Limpopo, we have 100 down, so it’s 10% of the network that is completely disabled, which is the large amount of the infrastructure. Gauteng looks a little bit different; we have got about 100 base stations down in Gauteng. Out of 2 700 base stations in Gauteng and in the Eastern Cape, we have got about 1 200 base stations and about 50 down which is again a very high percentage. But the point is, there is probably not a town in South Africa that is not affected by battery theft.”

MTN has lost over R400 million in 2020 alone, but only a small number of perpetrators is nabbed.

“We are seeing positive results, we’re certainly not close to arresting everybody that is stealing infrastructure from us. We’re probably dealing with 10 to 15 arrests a week but that’s far lower number as opposed to the incidents that are actually taking place. The fact that we are getting 10, 15 and 20 year sentences for the theft of the infrastructure is clearly for me sending the right message,” says Paul.

Emergency and security services affected

Despite the convictions, however, mobile services are increasingly interrupted, affecting emergency and security services as well as tracking systems.

“Do not steal the infrastructure, you are hurting the economy, you’re hurting the people of South Africa,” Paul urges.

He says the problem is widespread and is affecting all mobile operators.

“The other impact is on the industry itself, because you are now using a lot of capital expenditure to go back to repair and replace as opposed to expanding and improving, and that is a big concern.”

Vandalised cellphone tower infrastructure leaves citizens frustrated: