MTN South Africa has made significant progress in fighting battery theft at its base stations, making it much more difficult for criminals to break in and make off with them.
However, this has triggered what the company calls “revenge crime”, where criminals, angry that they aren’t able to steal the batteries, trash other infrastructure inside MTN’s base stations.
When this happens, it can take weeks to restore services to surrounding communities, leaving them unable to communicate. The damage is often extensive.
This is the word from Ernest Paul, GM of network operations at MTN South Africa, who was speaking to journalists at a media event in Johannesburg on Wednesday.
Because of the security measures it has put in place, MTN is losing significantly fewer batteries to theft than it used to. “Battery theft is down 50%/year in each of the last three years,” Paul said. However, perpetrators have sometimes now resorted to “revenge crime”, leaving “complete destruction” at tower sites. “You have to rebuild the base station, which can sometimes take a month.”
The areas most affected by this problem are in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo. It most often affects the more outlying areas. Border towns in Limpopo are particularly hard hit, he said.
Working with IHS
MTN South Africa, which recently sold the passive (non-radio) components of its base stations to tower operator IHS Holding in a R6.4-billion deal, is now working hand in hand with IHS to counter the problem.
MTN also plans to work with suppliers in local communities when it builds or repairs infrastructure, rather than relying on the big national suppliers. It hopes that community involvement will better serve to protect its infrastructure.
At the same media event, MTN South Africa CEO Charles Molapisi addressed the impact of load shedding on the company’s network, saying the operator is actively rolling out more backup batteries and solar systems to charge them to counter the power challenges. Even then, when load shedding is escalated to stage 6, as it was in July, it becomes very difficult to keep services up and running.
Molapisi said MTN Nigeria has worked with IHS for years. About 95% of the 16 000 sites that IHS runs on MTN’s behalf are not grid-tied. “They (IHS) have mastered the art of battery and solar roll-out and, unfortunately, also ‘gen-set’ (generators). Achieving 99% availability in a network in which 95% of the sites are without electricity is an amazing achievement.”
With IHS’s acquisition of MTN South Africa’s towers, Molapisi suggested that the Nigerian learnings will now be applied actively in the local network.
He said, too, that MTN plans to engage with independent power producers (IPPs) about securing renewable energy supplies, though a challenge is that a mobile network is highly distributed, and so getting alternative, IPP-supplied power to its tower sites is difficult.