Vandalism in telecom sector threatens drive towards digital economy

Econet Wireless Zimbabwe, the largest telecommunications company in Zimbabwe, says increased cases of vandalism and theft of critical telecoms network infrastructure and accessories – such as batteries, diesel and electric cables – is hampering the country’s drive towards a digital economy.

Zimbabwe has over the past two years witnessed a surge in cases of vandalism of telecommunications infrastructure which has resulted in mobile operators losing hundreds of millions of dollars in scarce foreign currency.

“As the cost of the vandalism of telecommunication companies’ equipment and infrastructure continues to grow, the real losers are the consumers of telecom services – both individual and business. The vandalism is affecting many sectors of the economy that are serviced by the telecom industry, and therefore slowing the entire country’s drive towards a full digital economy,” Econet said.

Indeed while the operators count their losses, subscribers bear the brunt of the vandalism through the resultant service disruption and poor connectivity.
For consumers, the direct impact is the drop in quality of service rendered, which over the past 12 months has been characterized by more incidences of dropped calls, undelivered short messages (SMSes) and issues with data connectivity, among others.

“We are experiencing increased cases of vandalism and theft at our telecom tower sites, which is also creating service disruptions. This has put additional pressure on the business to import spare parts using scarce foreign currency to enable us to respond quickly to service outages,” said Econet
in its third quarter trading update released recently.

To combat this scourge, the listed mobile network operator – which has invested over US$1.5 billion in network infrastructure in the past decade – is appealing to communities to help protect telecommunications infrastructure in their localities by working with the police to apprehend the
offenders and stamp out the vandalism.

“We are appealing to communities to take responsibility for their connectivity and communication convenience, by helping to stop the destruction and theft of network equipment,” Econet said.

“They should call the emergency numbers 112 or 911, or report such cases to the nearest police station,” the company said. Other utility and service delivery companies such as ZESA Holdings, TelOne and NetOne are also experiencing high cases of vandalism, resulting in increased load-shedding in the case of the former.

The upsurge in vandalism cases comes at a time Zimbabwe is banking on information and communication technologies (ICTs) to play an important role in achieving its Vision 2030 of becoming an upper-middle-income nation.

According to the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz), the ICT sector is critical to the country’s economic growth in the sense that it is an essential enabler for other business and economic sectors.

“The sector is expected to continue enabling other sectors, as envisioned in Government’s National Development Strategy 1, in particular e-commerce, which is seemingly on the rise,” said Dr Gift Machengete, the Potraz Director General.

He added that going digital was now more important than ever, with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to transform how people live, work and interact with one another. “As the pandemic continues to disrupt normality, the importance of a robust and inclusive digital economy, together with reliable broadband services, is imperative,” said Dr Machengete in a third quarter industry report released recently.

Analysts say the government should declare telecom infrastructure a critical national security and economic infrastructure, to ensure maximum penalties on those found vandalising the sector’s equipment and infrastructure.