Combating copper theft

The global cost of copper has increased by nearly 285 per cent over the last nine years from £1260[i] a metric tonne in 2003 to around £4843[ii] a metric tonne today. It’s a trend that looks set to continue, with global demand expected to rise by more than 40 per cent by 2020. Such hefty prices have become a perpetual concern for the global telecommunications industry, which traditionally uses copper wire and cabling for network grounding and transmission lines.

If the price of copper rises, it negatively impacts telecoms operators’ expenditure by increasing how much they must pay for copper-based products. It also has a further knock-on effect on maintenance costs. As the price continues to rise, the more attractive it becomes to thieves, who see it as a quick way of making money by selling stolen copper to scrap metal dealers. As a result, copper theft of RF and microwave transmission cables at cell sites, grounding wire on base stations, and telecoms cables from street cabinets is increasingly prevalent. Such thefts can cause significant damage to both cabling and ancillary equipment, resulting in increased repair visits for operators and loss of service quality for subscribers.

Copper theft is a global issue: in the US alone the ‘trade’ is now a US$1 billion a year problem and it is potentially ten-fold that globally. Developing nations are especially susceptible to such theft. The South African government currently spends close to $28 million[iii] a year on simply replacing and repairing telecommunications equipment due to copper cable theft. Meanwhile in India there have been reports of criminals making off with up to 9,000 kg of copper wire in one raid.[iv]

This type of crime is of upmost concern to operators, due to the fact it costs them hard cash in terms of cable replacement and also leads to increased network and service failures. Unfortunately, there is a clear link between service down-time and customer churn. In a competitive marketplace, operators cannot afford for services to fail for long periods of time. Attempts to combat this ongoing issue have seen operators have increased security at external sites, with some even marking cables with lasers, so that they can be traced if they are stolen. Unfortunately, these deterrents have often proven to be ineffective and expensive.

Alternatives to copper

As long as this type of theft continues to be a problem, operators will naturally look to reduce how much is spent on new copper materials as well as ways to better protect cabling infrastructure. Today this approach has lead to the investigation of whether more cost effective materials can be used instead. For instance, aluminium has been growing in popularity in recent years for transmission cabling, and steel is often now used instead of all-copper in grounding cables. Although both of these metals are good thermal and electrical conductors, their use hasn’t been widespread due to some of their perceived less desirable properties.   For example steel is an alloy of iron, making it susceptible to rust and therefore unsuitable for use as a grounding cable outdoors.

Fortunately, this challenge can be overcome by metallurgically bonding an outer sleeve of copper to the solid steel core of the grounding cable. Aside from being much more cost effective than solid cables to deploy and maintain, copper clad grounding cables are also lighter and more flexible and have a number of properties that make them good theft deterrents. For instance, they are far more resistant to cutting and fatigue and can be jacketed with a polyethylene coating to disguise and distinguish them from solid copper cables, reducing their appeal. Using a smoothwall design for coaxial aluminium transmission lines not only improves mechanical robustness by 2-3 times (compared to its equivalent in corrugated copper), but also improves electrical performance (e.g. 10% better attenuation) making it an attractive alternative to traditional products.

Today, the adoption of copper clad cables is on the rise and is expected to increase further as copper theft and rising prices continue to drive the demand for their installation. By taking this approach operators can deliver savings in both capital and operating expenses as well as improved customer service over the long term.

Cable theft deterrents

Although installing aluminium transmission cables and copper clad grounding cables can help to deter thieves, it is important to implement them alongside other measures that have been previously mentioned.

Site planning is essential to ensure that sites have all the appropriate security precautions they need: from fencing to security guards. Another way that companies can efficiently reduce their losses from cable theft is to implement remote monitoring solutions, such as surveillance cameras, motion detectors, and door access control systems.  These systems can play as large a role in deterring crime as in criminal detention, apprehension and prosecution.

With the telecommunications sector playing a vital part in the ongoing development of emerging markets, it is essential that operators do not let copper theft stunt this growth. The deployment of new, alternative forms of metal elements onto their systems, combined with traditional security and monitoring techniques will go a long way to ensuring the impact of criminal gangs is minimised substantially.

Sign-up to our weekly newsletter

Keep up-to-date with all the latest news, articles, event and product updates posted on Developing Telecoms.
Subscribe to our FREE weekly email newsletters for the latest telecom info in developing and emerging markets globally.
Sending occasional e-mail from 3rd parties about industry white papers, online and live events relevant to subscribers helps us fund this website and free weekly newsletter. We never sell your personal data. Click here to view our privacy policy.