Apr 08

Internet Unplugged by Grandma

From Fox News:

Internet service in all of Armenia was cut off for several hours when a 75-year old Georgian woman inadvertently cut the main service line between the two countries.

The woman was scavenging for scrap metal when she discovered the primary fiber-optic cable which runs through the two countries. Service went down when she apparently hacked into it with a shovel severing the line, officials said.

As someone who works in the telecommunications industry, I’ve seen first hand what the impact of copper theft can do.  I’ve also witnessed extended service disruptions when thieves cut fiber optic cable, thinking it is copper cable.

Comparison of Copper and Fiber Optic Cables

Comparison of Copper and Fiber Optic Cables

The theft of copper is surging to an all time high around the world as the scrap price has shot up.  When my team members and I can take six months worth of scrap wire in our office and sell it for $65, you can see that it can add up quickly.

By cutting and removing a 300 foot piece of fiber optic cable from a highway bridge, two guys can shut down Cable TV, Internet and Phone Service to tens of thousands of customers in one city.  And a cut like that can take several hours to splice in a new piece of cable.  What did the thieves get?  A piece of worthless fiber optic cable (a copper cable of same size and length would generate a scrap value of about $40-50).  What did the owner of that cable get?  An expensive bill for the replacement cable, crew overtime and credits to disrupted customers.

Fortunately, authorities in the Armenian case was able to identify and arrest the woman in their case.  Unfortunately, here at home, we can’t seem to get quite that lucky, with many of these cases unsolved.

In the US, laws have been passed in areas that requires fingerprinting sellers of copper and other “bulk” scrap.  Yet other places require only certain licensed contractors can sell certain kinds of scrap (i.e. Air Conditioner coils – another ripe target for copper thieves – can only be scrapped by licensed Air Conditioning Contractors).  But this patchwork is easily circumvented by the thieves just by going to another jurisdiction that doesn’t have such laws.

What is needed is tougher penalties for theft of copper and damaging infrastructure. At the same time better regulation of scrap dealers, likely at statewide levels (if not nationally) to require positive identification of scrap sellers will make it harder to get rid of their bounty.

Tougher laws will help over time, but until the price of copper comes back down will we see the thefts slow down or even end.

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