Fear and Loathing in Zombie-Robot World

The Backstory

On the 17th of February, in the early hours of the morning (or, perhaps, the witching hours of the night) a gang of robbers swung through Bibbey’s Hoek. They sent some spry, young lad up a telephone pole at the corner of the road to tie a rope to the telephone line, and, securing the other end to their vehicle, pulled down a thousand metres of telephone cable, snapping a couple of the support poles in the process. Having stripped off the outer insulation from the cable (presumably to save themselves carrying off the dead weight of the steel support cable) they made off with the copper. And the community’s phone and wired-internet services. So far, so normal. Another day night in South Africa.

For over a week, Telkom (who’s cable it was) denied that there was a problem to all their customers who managed to contact their helpline.

“It’s probably your router that’s faulty.”

“Have you tried switching it off and on again?”

“Our automated fault reporting system is unavailable at present. Please try again later.”

“beep. beep. beep. beep. beep. click.”

Eventually some technician drove the enormous distance from town to Bibbey’s Hoek (25km!) to discover the plastic sheath of ex-cable lying on the ground. Presumably he (there are no female technicians locally) drove back to the office to report, “O’ fock. There really is a problem.”

Background noise: Telkom hates the fixed-line terrestrial phone business and is actively trying to kill it. I have this directly from senior Telkom technical folk. (pers. comm.) Consequently there is massive managerial and systemic resistance to replacing stolen or damaged copper cable. In its place they install a cellular device tethered to your home location that uses 4G VOIP technology for telephone service. Talk about exploiting all the disadvantages of a technology and none of the upsides! The quality is dismal, and the availability of DSL service nonexistent. The fallout rate is astounding. After all, we all have cellphones already. If that was what we wanted, what do we need Telkom for in the first place?

What Telkom seems to have missed is that almost nobody gives a flying fuck about their old-fashioned phone service; it’s the DSL access to the internet we desire and pay for. The phone just happens to come along with it because… historical protectionism for the state-owned incumbent.

Trouble is, there’s no 4G coverage in this area. At least not on Telkom’s cellular network.

Faced with no good choices, Telkom held a meeting — two and a half weeks after the theft — where they concluded that, if they were to retain the few diehard customers in the area, they would have to make an exception to company policy and replace the aerial copper.

It took a further two weeks to get around to doing the job.

Telkom replaced the cable, missing poles and all, and all was back to goodness and internet and some semblance of 21st Century life once more in Bibbey’s Hoek.

For four days.

Then the thieves (we assume it’s the same gang) stole another piece of cable from alongside the Rheenendal Road. This time the section of missing cable is one that serves the local exchange, so impacting a much larger community than little Bibbey’s Hoek. A mere five days later we observed Telkom’s cabling contractor replacing the missing piece of cable. Perhaps they just happened to have cable and a cable-laying team conveniently in the area this time.

As far as we know the thieves have not been caught.

Mystery Number 1: How hard can it be to catch these knaves?

How hard could it be for detectives to catch these thieves? Especially since this form of copper theft has been rife, country-wide, for decades. Somewhere further up the feeding chain, all that copper has to get melted down into bars/rolls/sheets/whatever so that it can be resold to manufacturers of copper goods. That implies the existence of smelting works where an inquisitive detective might start asking questions about where said copper was acquired, and then start working backwards down the supply chain to the first-line (crooked) scrap merchants who deal with the thieves. If the real work is being done offshore then there are ships and shipping agents. This is just the ordinary stuff of police work, and I make no claim to any expertise, but this doesn’t seem like rocket surgery.

Mystery Number 2: Where are the Cops?

Given the longevity of this variety of thievery, along with the fact that I’m pretty sure that Telkom’s network-management centres must detect cable-breaks pretty-well the instant they happen, probably to within metres of the actual break, I would have expected the SA Police Services, in collaboration with, or at the urging of Telkom’s executives, to have set up a hotline/alarm whereby local cops are dispatched to the scene of such crimes within seconds of the occurrence… i.e. while the crooks are still busy. That this clearly does not happen is the worst possible indictment of South Africa’s police leadership, clearly too much preoccupied with power politics and petty ego puffery than with tackling actual crime. Not even crime aimed at the nation’s most basic infrastructure (and therefore an order of magnitude more important than lesser property crimes) that would, in many other countries, be classified as terrorism rather than mere criminal activity. And if the SA Police leadership can’t be bothered, it can only be because the ruling regime can’t be bothered with actual good governance and has its attention firmly fixed on other matters more important and lucrative to its individual members.

Mystery Number 3: A Couple of Technical Fixes, and Where Are They?

Given that Telkom must surely be one of the nation’s largest customers for multi-strand copper cable, I see no obstacle to them engaging with their cable suppliers to design cables with built-in weak spots every 20m or so, so that, when a cable gets dragged out behind a vehicle, it breaks at a pre-designed weakness, giving the thieves only a short piece of booty. Just the way electrical systems use fuses that melt/blow in the face to excessive currents to protect the rest of the electrical installation from meltdown or fire.

Given that Telkom must surely be one of the nation’s largest customers for multi-strand copper cable, why have they not sat down with the cable manufacturers’ technical people (pulling in outside consulting metallurgists if necessary) to design a cable that doesn’t use copper as the conductor, but employs some other alloy designed to have near-equivalent conductive and signalling properties, but economically low value? I’m pretty sure the materials science folk are up to that small conundrum.

Mystery Number 4: Why does nobody at Telkom use their brains?

If anyone at Telkom had been thinking/awake at the wheel on the 18th of February (the day after the first theft) they would, within 48 hours, have contacted every affected customer in Bibbey’s Hoek and surrounds with the proposition: We’ll be replacing the stolen cable with a fibre-optic line, and we’ll be able to provide you with fibre-to-the-premises. Your choice will be to accept the greater costs of fibre service or to become an ex-customer.

I suspect that almost everybody would have cheered with joy at the prospect of actual 21st Century-quality internet speeds rather than the smoke-signal-and-cleft-stick DSL service the neighbourhood currently “enjoys”. When it’s working. Which is seldom. Not just due to theft, but also the abysmally poor service quality that results from Telkoms neglect and lack of active maintenance driven by their desire to exit the terrestrial communications business as mentioned earlier.

The copper thieves know what fibre lines look like, and know that such are worthless to them, so fibre tends to get left alone. (Or perhaps I’m wrong and the sheer joy of pointless, profitless vandalism still appeals… I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more about this than I do. Really!)

Service Terminated

The real mystery is not why and how the copper lines get stolen, nor is there anything terribly deep to plumb in approaches to mitigating the problem.

The real mystery is: Why, after a couple of decades of experience at this, Telkom and the SA Police Services are still so utterly incompetent at managing incidences of cable theft?

Why did it take a week of denial before even acknowledging (even internally) that there’s a problem?

Why did it take more than another week during which customers were, during a global pandemic that induces people to try and work from home using the internet, left totally in the dark about the state of affairs, given zero communication regarding Telkom’s actions or plans? When a highway in Japan was destroyed by earthquake, the entire thing was fixed within a week. Quite a bit better than the longer-than-a-month it took Telkom to reluctantly, half-heartedly repair the damage only to be struck again within days because nobody in government or law-enforcement gives a shit.

This is why South Africa can’t have nice things.

How long does anybody suppose this is viable? I’m pretty sure that Telkom has hardly any customers left in the neighbourhood of Bibbey’s Hoek, because, reliant as we all are on internet access for our livelihoods and businesses, almost everyone has made some alternative plan — generally wireless access (where peoples’ homes have line-of-sight to a provider’s mast) or 4G (which is sorta feasible, though not on Telkom’s network). Because, given any reasonable level of IP-network access, who the fuck needs a fixed-line telephone anyway?

Post Script

I was asked why I bothered to write this all up, and the answer is this: As a systems designer, I am utterly baffled and frustrated at the dysfunctionality of the systems like Telkom. Not the technical infrastructure, but the organisation. It’s like a lobotomised blind zombie blundering about in the dark and unable to find its own arse despite the aid of a map, flashlight and a gaudy neon sign saying “Here be arseholes”. The stuff that needs to happen is so simple, so cheap and so easy that one can only assume a wilful malevolence behind the incompetence and lack of sensible responses that, for the largest part, demand no special insight or expertise, just a healthy dose of common sense.

I remain mystified. And rather frightened by these lumbering idiot hulks of Old Slow AI that corporations have become.