MTN has had to close 53 base stations permanently as a result of damage and vandalism, with another 89 cell towers awaiting repair and replacements for stolen batteries.

There is some good news, though: as a result of the recent focused attention on the epidemic of cell phone tower battery thefts, MTN has recovered batteries to the value of almost R1-million in the past week.

In the first half of the year, the cost to the industry has reached an unsustainable tipping-point, according to MTN GM: network operations, Ernest Paul.

He says the damage to towers and infrastructure is far exceeding the cost of repairing and replacing batteries and equipment.

Another major problem is that some acts of vandalism are so severe that hundreds of towers around the country are at risk of being permanently shut down, putting strain on the network and potentially diminishing the quality of the service provided to customers.

“The industry is under pressure to deal not only with improving security to curb theft of batteries and vandalism, but also having to pay increasing amounts to replace batteries and repair damage,” says Paul. “These costs to date have been incurred by the network operators but may need to be passed on to the consumer if the mounting theft continues.”

MTN data shows that as many as 89 cell towers across the country are currently on hold as they await replacement batteries and maintenance fixes. Meanwhile, 53 base stations have been completely destroyed and have had to be terminated nationally – 39 of them in Tshwane and 15 in Johannesburg.

“This situation leaves many South Africans without access to network services either because of downtime caused by repeated maintenance and repairs or in the extreme case of towers being terminated, where the regular theft and vandalism renders towers unsustainable. This impacts on consumer’s access to emergency services, effective business operations and connecting with loved ones,” says Paul

According to Paul, the cost to fix those towers which can be brought back online is as much as R350-million – and the damage is not insurable.

“As soon as levels of collaboration and general awareness improve, criminal activity slows down,” says Paul. “We saw this in the recovery of R1-million worth of batteries in Pretoria this past weekend.”

In another positive development in the fight against syndicates, a collaborative effort by police and security services led to the arrest of five suspects and the recovery of around 65 cell tower back-up batteries worth an estimated R1 900 000 in May.