Organised community support needed to fight cable theft and wider crime
Stephen Price (right), vice-president and general manager of Flow Jamaica, shows Minister of Science, Energy and Technology Dayrl Vaz (centre), and Senior Superintendent of Police Stephanie Lindsay some of the items cut from its fibre network by thieves. (Photo: Joseph Wellington)

Her distress was clear as acting principal of Park Mountain Primary School, just outside Santa Cruz, Miss Keisha Reid, spoke of problems resulting from loss of Internet service caused by repeated vandalism and theft of telecoms cable lines.

"The [mobile] hot spot is very slow; it is not working properly, [so] I have to [check] the e-mails [at home] in the [early] morning and respond… and send… correspondence to teachers from early morning before I come to work, because when I get here [school] nothing like that can happen," Miss Reid told this newspaper in October.

Mr Stephen Price, vice-president and general manager of Flow Jamaica, told a media briefing last week that 323 communities are affected by vandalism and theft of utility cable lines and related equipment.

Flow's main rival Digicel and other utility providers have also been affected.

Labelling it as "domestic terrorism", Mr Price said 12,340 residential customers and more than 1,100 business customers have lost service since January 2021 because of such criminality.

It's getting worse. Said Mr Price: "In 2021 we had over 600 incidents of theft and vandalism. Since the start of 2022 we are now at 630 with a few weeks to go…"

Flow has spent US$1 million this year restoring service, but many people are still without service, according to him.

Among those still waiting are Park Mountain Primary and neighbours who were promised restored service last month.

Mr Price says Flow has incurred restoration costs of more than US$15 million since 2016. The problem was highlighted just hours before last week's media briefing when a man was arrested after allegedly being caught red-handed stealing cable lines on Hillcrest Avenue in St Andrew.

Mr Price wants stiffer, longer penalties. He believes "terrorism" must be punished with commensurate fines and jail terms. We are told that on occasions punishment handed down by the courts have included probation and community service.

He and telecoms minister Mr Daryl Vaz agree that the worsening threat to telecoms and wider utility services is endangering Jamaica's future, including Vision 2030. Hence, the minister's announcement that the Government is contemplating a ban on export of copper — as part of the scrap metal trade — and an increase in penalties under the Telecommunications Act. The police are also talking up plans to use the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) against such criminals.

Why, we wonder, are these proposed actions only just coming to the fore?

"Terrorism", as described by Mr Price, is not new. Over many years both political sides, while in Government, have, on occasions, halted the scrap metal trade because of damage to utility services, only for criminals to resume 'normal service' with lifting of the ban sometime later.

Earlier this year, the Trinidad and Tobago Government announced a ban on the trade because of damage to that country's telecoms infrastructure.

Beyond all that, we believe that just as is urgently needed to deal with wider crime, communities must be organised to work with the security forces against those who target public services.

Instructively, police reportedly caught the alleged offender in last week's Hillcrest Avenue incident after receiving a call about a "strange" vehicle.

We have said it repeatedly, we will keep saying it, communities must be proactively organised to combat crime.

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