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Flow sales hurting from US$10m copper theft

Telecommunications provider Flow Jamaica said that copper theft and vandalism cost it at least US$10 million, or $1.5 billion, in lost revenue this year following hundreds of incidents of vandalism, including one in St Andrew this week.

“This is domestic terrorism,” said Stephen Price, Flow Jamaica’s country manager, at a press conference and panel discussion on Thursday, referring to the theft of 300 metres of copper Wednesday night on Hillcrest Avenue.

Police successfully intercepted the criminals, but not before the damage was done to the community’s connectivity. Generally, thieves want copper and its associated infrastructure to onsell to the scrap metal trade, according to experts on a panel discussion hosted by Flow in New Kingston.

“Restoration costs this year were US$2 million … and US$10 million in lost revenue, this year,” said Price. “This is a significant hit.”

Price said this negatively affects the company’s reputation, with over 97 per cent of its outages due to external factors, led by power outages and theft. The thieves want copper, but also batteries generators and fuel.

The rate of theft continues to climb with one-third, or 319 incidents, occurring this year when compared with the 1,091 incidents recorded since 2016. These incidents have disrupted service to 250 communities.

“We have incurred restoration costs of over US$15 million, which excludes loss of revenue to us and also investments in asset-protection programmes,” said Price, regarding the cost of the seven years of vandalism.

Despite the social, economic and risk of electrocution to service personnel, these criminals get a “tap on the wrist”, he charged.

There are eight parishes that are heavily targeted by thieves, led by the communities in Spanish Town and Portmore, both in St Catherine. But Price hinted that Santa Cruz in St Elizabeth is an emerging zone, presumably as thieves seek out areas with low police presence.

Flow Jamaica generated revenue of US$108 million for the September quarter and is on track to surpass US$400 million for the full year. The theft would have negatively affected its revenue this year by a minimum 2.5 per cent, based on the US$10-million minimum figure quoted by Price.

The thieves target equipment held above and below ground in manholes. Flow has even resorted to sealing some manholes with concrete to prevent entry, but some criminals still break through the protective barriers and steal cables, Price said. The telecoms has spent some US$2 million this year to replace stolen cables.

Minister of Science, Energy and Technology Daryl Vaz said at the forum that he will recommend that Cabinet suspend the export of copper cables, as a means of disincentivising the theft.

“I will be advocating for the immediate suspension of copper exports under the scrap metal industry, based on what has been presented here and the unequivocal evidence of the link between” criminality and the scrap metal trade, Vaz said.

Senior Superintendent Stephanie Lindsay said the police view some of the theft as the work of organised criminals, and would charge such perpetrators under the Proceeds of Crime Act, rather than treat it as simple vandalism.

“This is a form of organised crime that has an impact on businesses, communities and the economy on a whole,” Lindsay said.

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