Britain is in the middle of a cable and metal theft epidemic – how is it affecting telcos and their customers?
Much has been made of the spate of cable theft across the country in the last few years in the face of rocketing metal prices. Power cables and overhead train lines have been stolen, as well as cabling controlling traffic lights and signage on our motorways. The problem has become so bad that it is estimated it costs the economy £20 million a year.
Copper – worth US$10,000 per tonne
The problem has proven especially bad for BT, owner of the majority of the nation’s telecommunications network – and much of which is copper, a now highly valuable metal. The company created the position of General Manager of cable theft in January, and the post is currently held by Luke Beeson.
"I think the creation of this post is recognition of just how serious problem has become in the industry. We’ve seen incidents of cable theft up 12% year on year, but more importantly we’ve seen customer reported faults up 20%," Beeson said.
"In terms of serious damage to infrastructure and telecommunications it has only been a major problem in the last 5-6 years, and much more dramatically over the last three years. The price of copper has trebled over that time."
The problem used to be more caused by opportunist criminals working alone, but increasingly it is being driven by highly organised, well resourced gangs. There have been several incidents of thieves imitating BT staff in broad daylight – right down to BT labelled vans, high visibility work wear and industrial equipment.
It is no coincidence that copper’s value has soared from around $1,550 per tonne in 2001 to around US$8,000p/t today. Earlier this year it reached record highs of US$10,000p/t, driven by demand in emerging markets, especially China. Thieves see these cables as easy and profitable targets.
The biggest problem appears to be the current legal framework for trading in metal. Under the 1964 Scrap Metal Dealers Act, the maximum penalty is just £1,000. Sellers aren’t required to present any ID and buyers are often unscrupulous. BT and other companies affected have long been lobbying for an update to the law.
Transport Minister Norman Baker has described cable theft as a ‘full blown national epidemic‘.
As well as causing broadband network outages for BT and its customers that share its network, more seriously emergency services have been cut off in rural areas.
The police have had to station extra patrol cars on call in areas where 999 calls have been cut off, and the coast guard has had to station volunteers on walkie talkies on the coast to call in problems.
BT has even built its own Metal Theft Taskforce which has hired ex-police detectives and analysts to do forensics on cable theft sites and work with the national Transport Police’s own national metal theft unit.
As part of George Osborne’s Autumn Statement, the government set aside £5m for this national metal theft taskforce.
Cable theft costs BT millions of pounds directly, but a lot of these costs are intangible and have serious flow on effects, Beeson says.
"The direct costs are all the costs relating to replacing missing copper. Indirect costs include extra calls to our customer service centre, or our customers not being able to trade."
The collateral damage on the network is more far reaching. As the thieves are getting more sophisticated and ambitious they’ve been going after the mother lode – the network’s huge core cables. The use of petrol disc cutters means they cut through anything in the way – including fibre optic cables.
"I don’t need to tell you what the effect of taking out just one of our major fibre optic cables can be."
The network has redundancies built in, but these can be in the same shaft and often get attacked at the same time. The older parts of the system simply weren’t designed for criminality on this level.
The company has also been using the repair time to do maintenance, as well as install further redundancies as part of the company’s £2.5 billion fibre-optic broadband rollout. As time passes the entire network will be converted to fibre, eventually killing off the copper theft problem.
Another big expenditure has been the investment in security technologies, adding to running costs. This includes everything from locked down manholes – "but we can’t lock every manhole in the country" – to sophisticated infrared and air pressure based alarms and even SmartWater – an invisible ink that sticks to perpetrators and their stolen property for months, enabling easier tracing.
Beeson says the company has been reaching out to community watch programmes and local police forces urging them to watch for suspicious activity, even if it appears to be routine maintenance by BT staff.
"We’ve had the police approach a work gang and ask for ID, and the hard hats have gone flying as they leg it down the street."