The news first appeared in the forums of Caithness, Scotland’s official website: on September 6th of this year, a maintenance engineer discovered that copper strips had been stolen from a cell phone tower. The strips, worth £600, had been installed to protect the tower from lightning strikes, and were still in place when the tower was last checked on June 6.
The pilferage is the latest symptom in an epidemic of metal theft; as worldwide prices for certain scrap metals rise (most commonly copper, aluminium, brass, and bronze), so do the quantity — and brazenness — of the thefts. Up until now, houses and factories with copper tubing and conduits have been the preferred target of thieves. So why was this cell tower targeted?
Quite simply, quantity.
As you can see in the above graph, the price for copper has hovered around the US$4-4.50 mark for most of the year. Currently, £600 = approximately US$960. Even assuming a lowball copper price of US$4/lb, this means that the thieves made off with two hundred forty pounds of copper. (And according to Wikipedia, metal theft is now the fastest-growing crime in the UK, at an annual cost of over £360 million.)
As mentioned earlier, the copper strips are installed to protect the cell tower from lightning strikes. But, as also mentioned earlier, such thefts can often go undetected/unreported for months. And all it takes is one errant bolt of lightning, and a quarter-million dollars of wireless telecom gear becomes toast.
Cell-tower owners and operators are beefing up security and surveillance, and the thieves — often drug addicts and other non-professionals looking to make what appears to be an easy buck — are occasionally arrested in the act. (Or in one case, killed in the act when they unwittingly cut into a high-voltage line and electrocuted themselves.)