LONDON -- The epidemic of telecom cable thefts has prompted a U.S. company to develop a new design that drastically cuts down the copper content in a bid to deter metal thieves.
CommScope Inc.'s GroundSmart Copper Clad Steel cable is probably the most radical solution yet devised to copper theft in that it removes almost all of the copper grounding metal of the sort commonly used in networks to return current to earth for safety reasons.
Unlike conventional cables made from solid copper, the GroundSmart consists of a steel core around which is bonded a copper outer casing, forming an equally effective but far less valuable cable.
The end result, according to the Hickory, N.C. company, is something that exploits the corrosion-resistance of copper with the conductive properties of steel.
"Companies trying to protect their copper infrastructure have been going to extreme measures to deter theft, many of which are neither successful nor cost effective," said CommScope vice-president, Doug Wells.
"Despite efforts like these, thieves continue to steal copper because of its rising value. The result is costly damage to networks and growing service disruptions."
Alternatives included cable etching to aid tracing of stolen metal and using chemicals that left stains detectable under ultra-violet light, he said. To alert thieves that the cable was not solid copper, the GroundSmart cable could be printed to indicate its composition.
If the GroundSmart gains some traction it might come in the nick of time. After years of price stability, copper prices started to soar in 2004 as demand ramped; the metal is now worth three to four times as much as it was then.
CommScope claims that copper theft in costs U.S. companies $60 million a year.
In Canada, Telus Corp. says were 400 incidents of wire theft from its sites in the lower B.C. mainland alone, according to spokesman Shawn Hall.
B.C. has passed legislation regulating the sale of metal to scrap dealers, he said in an email, which is expected to be implemented shortly. That, he said, will "go a long way towards eliminating the market for stolen Telus cable. We have also been hardening our storage yards and facilities with stronger fencing, cameras, and other measures. We’ve been working closely with police forces to raise their awareness of the issue and work on joint investigations, which have resulted in a few dozen arrests in the last year. We’ve also been replacing a lot of our larger copper cables with fibre optics, which are made from plastic and therefore worthless on the scrap market. We’ve also been working to raise public awareness, and are pleased that tips from the public have resulted in several arrests.
"Because of these initiatives and the declining price of copper the incidents of theft are down by about half from where we were a year ago ... "We’re making progress, but there’s still lots to do."
Bell Canada spokesman Marie-eve Francoueur said copper theft is an "occaisional problem" for the Montreal-based phone company. But, she added in an email, it has been able to manage the problem by working closely with police.
In the U.K., signs that high prices were causing telecoms companies theft issues started with a break-in that brought down a BT exchange in 2008, which came only months after another suspicious "equipment theft" from a Cable & Wireless exchange that disrupted the Financial Times.
The company has released a video explaining the technology on its Web site. Direct price comparisons between copper and CommScope's hybrid cables have not yet been made available.
(From Techworld.com, with adds by Howard Solomon, Network World Canada)