AN immediate ban on the export of copper as part of the scrap metal trade, and an increase in the penalties under the Telecommunications Act, are some of the measures being contemplated by the Government to clamp down on the theft of cables and other items from the island's major telecoms providers.
Minister of Science, Energy and Technology Daryl Vaz announced the measures yesterday at a media briefing hosted by telecommunications company Flow, during which it outlined the deleterious impact that the theft of cable and other equipment is having on its business and on thousands of its customers.
"I know for sure that the Telecommunications Act is being revised and, of course, we will go to the maximum fines that are allowed in the parish courts which I think is between three and five million dollars and three to five years imprisonment," said Vaz as he vowed to make protecting the infrastructure of telecoms providers an absolute priority.
"And when I leave here I will be penning a letter to Minister of Industry, Investment and Commerce [Aubyn] Hill and I will be advocating for the immediate suspension of copper exports under the scrap metal industry. I have no fear in saying that despite the fact that we are about to go into the Christmas season.
"Based on what has been presented here and the unequivocal evidence of the link between both, it is impatient of action and I am impatient of stemming this situation," declared Vaz as he told the briefing that he is confident that Hill will agree with him and an announcement will be made in short order.
Vaz was a member of a panel which responded to an impassioned plea from Stephen Price, vice-president and general manager of Flow Jamaica, who called for urgent action to address the theft of cables and other equipment which he noted impacts his company, its main competitor Digicel, the Jamaica Public Service Company, the National Water Commission, and others.
"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. Three-hundred and twenty-three communities are currently affected. We have already spent US$1-million restoring services and many people are [still] without services," declared Price.
"Notwithstanding this, we continue to invest in our fibre network. Over the past five years we have invested over US$370 million expanding our fibre network into over 700 communities, bringing access to over 200,000 households.
"But look what is happening, 111 acts of vandalism of the fibre network so far in 2022. What is the message here for investors? Are we serious about Vision 2030 Jamaica?" added Price as he noted that the problem has existed for more than 10 years and declared that, "enough is enough".
Price pointed out that St Catherine is the parish with the highest number of incidents of theft of Flow equipment with some communities having their infrastructure replaced four times in one year only for them to be stolen again.
"Our most recent area that is becoming a hot spot is Santa Cruz [St Elizabeth] where we have schools and police stations impacted even though we have replaced the infrastructure three times over the past five months. This is absolutely untenable and it is not a sustainable business model," argued Price.
He pointed to the St Mary Technical High School which has been without cable service since August and at best will have its service restored in January 2023. Belmont Academy in Westmoreland and the Lacovia Police Station in St Elizabeth which are both without service because of theft with no clear timeline as to when they will have their service restored.
According to Price, the business and commercial districts across the island are now being impacted by the theft of telecommunications cables and pointed to an attempted heist on Hilcrest Avenue in upper St Andrew Thursday morning, hours before the briefing started.
That attempt was thwarted by the police but not before the culprits cut Flow's underground cable leaving scores of its customers in the Corporate Area without service.
"Half-Way-Tree has been hit already, Cross Roads has been hit, Hagley Park Road, especially that corridor leading to our ports…Upper Maxfield Avenue, the industrial belt [on Spanish Town Road], Newport West has been hit, Marcus Garvey Drive, major blows have happened in those communities in particular.
Price noted that there have been no hits on Flow's copper network in St James and Hanover so far this year but the rest of the country has recorded 319 incidents with 59 in St Catherine; a combined total of 84 in St Ann, St Mary and Portland, and 67 incidents in the central parishes.
"And this is just the copper network where we are delivering critical services to power hospitals, school, hotels, BPOs, small business and many more. It is challenging for us as a business," said Price as he noted that the company has incurred restoration cost of more than US$15-million plus loss of revenue.
According to Price, over the past seven years the theft of its cables for copper has continued to increase with the only decline coming in 2017 when the Government implemented a temporary ban on copper exports.
"Once the industry opened up again the data indicates what happened to our infrastructure — immediate spikes in stolen copper cables.
"There is a direct correlation between the ban on copper exports and the decline in incidents of vandalism of copper. The reverse holds true, a removal of the ban saw an immediate and sharp increase in the number of incidents," said Price as he argued that if the scrap metal industry cannot be properly managed it should be shut down or a permanent ban imposed on the export of copper.
"We have been talking about this for years, it is now time for action," declared Price as he underscored that Flow is prepared to work with the Government and other stakeholders to deal with this scourge.