There continue to be frequent reports of cable theft, both of power cables and of telecom cables, from many parts of the world, with cables being stolen for the scrap value of their metal content, especially copper. Though cable theft has existed as a low level problem for many years, it has become a much more serious issue as a result of the rise in metal prices. This problem is widespread and is certainly not limited to poorer developing countries. For example, in the US local telecom carriers have regular problems with theft of sections of pole-mounted copper telecom cables from their access networks. In the UK, British Transport Police, the force that maintains security on the rail network have stated that reducing cable theft is one of their highest priorities – only countering potential terrorist threats ranks higher.
But the problem of cable theft is particularly acute in some developing countries. In China there were 190,000 recorded incidents of theft of “telecom facilities” in 2006, up from 53,000 in 2005. In South Africa the power utility Eskom lost cables valued at R20 million in 2006, while Transnet Freight Rail lost cable worth R5.5m. Building construction sites in South Africa have been the targets of raids by well-organised armed gangs, so that cable is stolen even before it can be installed. South Africa is an exporter of copper, despite the country having no copper mines!
Cable theft is not only a cost burden for end-users, but can affect their strategic decisions: in some African countries, such as Kenya, telecom operators have decided to invest more heavily in wireless networks due to the persistent problem of cable theft. However, even these “wireless” systems are not immune and can be disrupted by cable theft, as cables used within wireless base stations may be targeted by thieves. In India the main telco, BSNL, has attributed the loss of fixed line customers in some cities to disruptions in services caused by cable theft, though it also suggests that there may be more involved than low-level criminality. BSNL has accused rival phone companies of encouraging “anti-social elements” to cut BSNL’s cables.
In an unusual variation on the theme of cable theft, in 2007 there were reports from Vietnam that thieves using fishing vessels had stolen several lengths of fibre optic cable from the seabed in the South China Sea! This caused major disruptions in the country’s international communications. The scrap value of such submarine cables must be small – containing metal only in the form of steel armour and copper wire used to power repeaters. Thieves have also damaged land-based fibre optic cables in Kenya, presumably acting under the mistaken belief that these cables contained valuable copper scrap.