Cable theft: what is being done?

Telkom’s head of network field services, Theo Hess, recently revealed some unsettling statistics about the level of copper theft they see on a daily basis.

Copper cable theft has plagued South African businesses and consumers alike, with essential services from companies like Telkom, Eskom, and more recently the Gautrain, being disrupted.

Although different organisations have varying opinions on the extent of the damage caused to the South African economy, it is estimated between R5 billion and R10 billion.

With such a high estimated impact on our economy, what is being done to address the problem?

Telkom copper theft counter measures

Hess explained that Telkom has taken steps such as establishing per-region security structures, which it calls its National Protection Services (NPS).

According to Telkom’s annual report, NPS conducted a total of 1,989 investigation in 2010 of which 1,246 were cable related. The overall number of investigations decreased in the 2011 financial year to 1,798, though the number of cable-related investigations increased to 1,264.

NPS gathers and shares intelligence, and conducts operations in conjunction with the South African Police Services, Hess said.

Telkom will also be appointing a new armed response contractor to replace the axed Radio Surveillance Security Services (RSSS). In the meantime Telkom has short-term contracts in place with other armed response vendors.

The incumbent has also brought all its cable alarm surveillance in-house, Hess said. Designed in-house, the IP-based technology is being rolled out country-wide on a priority basis.

In areas where cable can no longer be replaced due to high instances of theft, Hess said that they offer alternative technologies to copper such as wireless, VSAT, and where feasible, optic fibre cables.

Telkom is also hardening its infrastructure where it can, Hess added, moving cable from overhead to underground and encasing cable runs in concrete.

Government intervention

However, when service providers like Telkom shoulder most of the burden of protecting their infrastructure it’s inevitable that those costs get passed on to the end-user.

Hess said that government has been offering greater support of late, including good co-operation from the police at the highest level and legislative support.

Although organisations such as the SA Chamber of Commerce have pushed for copper to be declared a precious metal and the theft thereof sabotage, Hess said neither proposition are likely to find great support.

This is because they have significant practical implications, Hess said.

According to Hess, the low conviction rate and light sentencing of cable thieves is being remedied with training at the National Prosecuting Authority. The new Second Hand Goods Act, which is to replace the old Act from 1955, also allows for heavier sentences, Hess added.

The principles of the new Act are solid, Hess said, but much depends on the efficiency of compliance and implementation.

Under the Act, copper is declared a “controlled metal” and a number of limitations placed on its trade and possession.

In the government gazette of 9 December 2011, President Zuma put some of the sections of the Act in force including those that:

* Define what a controlled metal is,

* Criminalise dealers not reporting suspicious transactions, and

* Criminalise the dealing in, or possession of, “non-ferrous metal” (e.g. copper) of which the cover has been burnt.

It should be noted that the above points are paraphrased from the Act, and some mitigating circumstances do apply.

On 13 January 2012, the President proclaimed that the parts of the Act specifying maximum prison terms for offences would come in force on 16 January 2012.

This has the effect that anyone guilty of the crimes listed above may be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in jail.

In some cases where offences are ongoing a court may declare the goods in question forfeited to the state, or impose further penalties.