Vincent Fevrier

Vincent Fevrier

Senior Intelligence Analyst

07/07/2020

07/07/2020

Threats to the Telecom Sector in South America: From 5G Towers to Cable Laying Ships

From COVID-19 and 5G conspiracy theories causing significant damage to infrastructure and putting employee safety at risk, to armed groups, regular theft and escalating political instability, we analyse the wide-ranging threats to the telecommunications sector in South America.

Introduction

In the last several months COVID-19 has had a significant impact on a number of sectors across the world, including the telecom sector. While some projects have been put on hold, the telecom sector has continued to implement projects in South America, as companies see opportunities to provide and improve connectivity, along with services, that will help spur economic growth on the continent.

These projects include the installation of a variety of infrastructure, from terrestrial fibre-optic cables to subsea fibre-optic cables, as well as the installation of telecommunication towers and base stations for wireless communications. Recently, CenturyLink has expanded its infrastructure with an 800km new fibre-optic route from Quito, Ecuador to Cali, Colombia, integrated with the South American Crossing (SAC) subsea cable, enabling a 100% redundant connectivity for the company’s services.

The continent has seen the implementation of private networks in a variety of countries, and for several industries. Brazil has seen Neonergia activate a private network as part of its Energy of the Future strategy, with the LTE network allowing for improvements in the quality of the utility company’s services. In Peru, reports state that Nokia and Telefonica are working together to implement a private LTE network at the Minera Las Bambas copper mine, with the possibility for the network to then evolve to 5G. The use of a private network at the mine would allow for the implementation of new automation technology solutions, and in turn, increasing the productivity of the mine. In 2018, a private network for farmers was implemented in Brazil between the John Deere tractor company and local telecom supplier Tropico, which would allow farmers to remotely monitor fieldwork and analyse the data to improve productivity and adjust planting and harvesting schedules. 

Telecommunication technology and solutions have a number of applications, which impacts not only corporations and businesses but also everyday life. With this power comes scrutiny, from both government regulators and the public. We’ve seen this most recently with 5G and conspiracy theories surrounding the technology, especially with the beliefs that it's linked with COVID-19. However, 5G conspiracy related incidents are not the only threat to the telecom industry in South America, with the activities of armed groups, maritime threats, thefts, and political turmoil among others, also posing serious threats to workers and infrastructure.

 

Threats to the Telecom Sector

On the 24th June, a number of protests took place in a variety of countries in South America, to protest against effects of 5G mobile phone technologies, due to protesters believing antennas to be harmful for human health and the environment. One of these protests took place outside the Torre Ejecutiva in Montevideo, Uruguay. The protest was organised through the Stop 5G Antennas Uruguay Facebook group. Another protest took place in Maldonado, Uruguay on the 29th June, to demand further studies on the effects of 5G technologies. Uruguay does have a commercial 5G network, but it's limited in reach, as it's still in its infancy. Similar protests have taken place since 2019, but the technology in question came to the forefront in recent months due to conspiracy theories that the technology is linked to the cause of the spread of COVID-19. This conspiracy theory led to arson attacks on 5G and non-5G cell towers across Europe, and that threat has now spread to South America.

On the 8th of June, a cell tower in K’ara K’ara, in the department of Cochabamba in Bolivia, was destroyed with explosives placed at the base of the tower to take it down. The type of explosive has not been disclosed. Days later, four cell towers were set on fire in the area of Yapacani, in the department of Santa Cruz. In both cases, the towers were destroyed reportedly due to fears that they were 5G towers and were linked to COVID-19. The Bolivian government has ordered an investigation in the incidents, with the incident in K’ara K’ara described as a “suspected terrorist attack”. The country does not have any 5G infrastructure at the moment. Bolivia has not been the only country in the region where cell towers have been set on fire. Several cell towers were set on fire in the departments of Concepcion, Canindeyu, and Guaira in Paraguay, as well as in the vicinity of Paucara, in the region of Huancavelica in Peru. The belief that 5G and COVID-19 were linked was also the reason for the attacks to the infrastructure. Both Paraguay and Peru do not currently have 5G infrastructure.

The conspiracy theory surrounding 5G and COVID-19 has not only been a threat to cell towers, but also to the employees of the telecom companies, as well as to those who support the installation of the technology. Around the same time as residents set fire to a cell tower in the Huancavelica region of Peru, residents in the Yauli district of the aforementioned region assaulted the mayor, accusing him of allowing the construction of 5G antennas in the area. Additionally, and of greater significance, was the detention of eight telecom engineers by residents in the Chopca community nearby, after residents heard through social media that the antennas were being replaced by 5G antennas, which they believed caused COVID-19. The engineers had been sent to the scene to conduct maintenance work. The workers were rescued by authorities 10 hours later. The unproven links between 5G mobile technologies and COVID-19, being spread via social media, has showcased the vulnerabilities of telecom infrastructure and employees in the region, particularly in remote locations.

Map highlighting the attacks on 5G antennas across South America in 2020
Map highlighting the attacks on 5G telecommunication towers across South America in 2020. [Source: Intelligence Fusion]

 

Another threat to the telecom sector in South America has been the activity of armed groups operating in certain countries, such as in Colombia and Chile. The activities of these groups are a threat not only to the physical infrastructure, but also to personnel of telecom companies then tasked to repair any damage to equipment. During the ELN’s armed strike in Colombia in February 2020, two cell towers were targeted with explosives in the Rio de Oro area of the department of Cesar, while another cell tower was destroyed with explosives in the municipality of Hacari, in the department of Norte de Santander. During that same period, the group had warned of people travelling by road, air or river transport, and that they could become targets, which had the potential to threaten any telecom workers deployed to repair the cell towers. Months before, in September 2019, two cell towers were set on fire in two rural areas of the municipality of El Carmen, in the department of Norte de Santander. The activities of the armed groups have also involved the hijacking of vehicles belonging to telecom companies and extortion. The threat of kidnapping by armed groups is also present. Historical evidence has shown armed groups in Colombia and Mexico set up private communication networks with their own antennas. Telecom workers have been kidnapped as a means to plan, build, maintain and repair these networks. They’ve also been kidnapped when sent to repair or conduct maintenance on equipment, which has been perceived as making attempts to spy on armed groups in the area. While no incidents of such kidnappings have been reported recently, groups such as the ELN in Colombia have continued to kidnap oil workers, and so the possibility that telecom workers could be kidnapped is present.

In Chile, Mapuche militants have been fighting for greater autonomy, recognition of rights, and the recovery of ancestral lands for decades. This conflict has primarily taken place in the regions of Bio Bio, La Araucania and Los Rios. Militants from the Mapuche community have conducted a number of attacks directed at police, but one of their most common tactics has been the use of arson. Targets have primarily been forestry companies and construction firms. However, in March and June 2020, two cell towers were attacked using explosives. No one was hurt in either incident and the attack in June was claimed by the Resistencia Mapuche Lafkenche group. In its statement claiming the attack, the group indicated their “commitment to expel companies from the territory”. The use of explosives has increased in 2020, whereas before the use of gasoline and Molotov cocktails were more commonplace. 

Attacks on telecommunications towers in Chile and Colombia conducted by armed groups in 2020.
Attacks on telecommunications towers in Chile and Colombia conducted by armed groups in 2020. [Source: Intelligence Fusion]

 

While the attacks and threats posed by armed groups to telecom infrastructure are significant, they remain rare. However, the threats posed by common thieves and vandals are more common and remains the biggest problem. Telecommunication cables are often targeted by thieves due to their copper components, which are of value. Additionally, batteries and other components have been known to be stolen from the infrastructure at the base of cell towers. The theft of telecommunication cables has been reported across South America and is not unique to any of the countries. In the first quarter of 2020, the number of incidents related to cable thefts in the 10 communes most affected by it in Chile, increased by 140% compared to the same period in 2019. In January 2020, authorities seized 83 tonnes of copper cable at a warehouse in Lampa, Chile, with the copper reportedly destined for China, using false paperwork. The number of incidents of cable thefts has also increased in Colombia, with the cities of Medellin, Bogota, Cartagena, and Barranquilla ranking at the top regarding the location where these incidents take place. In March 2020, 14 sectors of Guayaquil, Ecuador were left without phone or internet service after 1,532 meters of cable was stolen, impacting 4,600 customers. The theft of these cables is not only a cost to telecom companies, but are also a cost to customers, who may lose out on income due to disruption on their internet or cell services, impacting their ability to conduct business.

Vandalism is also a concern to the telecom sector, with the cutting of cables having led to a number of outages across the region. On the 18th of June, 15,000 customers in the communes of Penaflor, Maine, Padre Hurtado, Talagante, and Melipilla, in the Metropolitan Region of Santiago lost connectivity due to telecom network cables being cut. In August 2019 in Chiguayante, Chile, a masked man damaged wiring and equipment at the base of a cell tower, but the incident did not cause an interruption in the service. With some cables providing service to multiple countries, an act of vandalism may have ramifications for other communities in neighbouring countries. In June 2019, customers in the region of Magallanes in Chile lost service after a telecom cable was cut in Jaramillo, in the province of Santa Cruz in Argentina. Similar to incidents of theft or more significant destruction of cell towers as mentioned before, these acts have ramifications beyond the cost to telecom companies to repair the infrastructure. The continued interruptions to the services impact clients and add more complexity to the problem in the form of reputational threats.

Incident of theft and vandalism affecting the telecommunications sector in South America.
Incidents of theft and vandalism targeting the telecommunications sector in South America. [Source: Intelligence Fusion]

 

While previous threats mentioned have been focused on terrestrial infrastructure such as cell towers, countries, regions and continents are connected by subsea cables. These cables are made of various components, including armoured cable, lightweight cable, repeaters, ending at a cable landing station onshore. These components face their own subsection of threats, from anchors dragging them out of place or cutting them, pirates attacking cable laying ships, the threat of espionage through the installation of harmful hardware on the cable, although unlikely, with the highest risk of any of these threats taking place close to shore and in areas where the depth is less than 300 meters. Natural hazards such as undersea earthquakes, mudslides, tsunamis and cyclones/hurricanes also pose a risk to the integrity of subsea cables. The ships involved in the installation and repair of subsea cables may also be at risk depending on the location in which their work takes place, and the distance they are away from shore. 

Subsea cables and maritime telecom operations face various threats dependent on where in South America they operate. A consideration to be taken when operating in South America is the threat of drug trafficking. Drug traffickers operate in many ports around the region including Santos, Brazil and Buenaventura, Colombia, where they load shipments of drugs onto cargo ships bound for North America, Europe and Africa. Additionally, a number of low-profile vessels and fishing boats are used to move cocaine from Colombia and Ecuador up to Central America and then North America. While it is unlikely that drug traffickers would target cable laying ships directly, it is important to understand that these ships operate in the same waters as criminal elements, and that if drug traffickers feel their business is under threat by the actions of the cable laying vessels, they may respond in a dangerous manner. 

Additionally, those same waters see incidences of piracy, from fishing vessels being attacked by gunmen, or thieves and armed robbers boarding bulk carriers and product tankers to steal goods. While such an incident targeting a cable laying ship has not been reported in the region recently, the threat of thieves or armed robbers boarding a ship in port or out at sea, is a possibility. Any threat of piracy would be highest when ships go out to repair a cable, as there is an element of unpredictability involved in regard to timing or location that such a repair takes place. The threat of piracy is highest in the region off Venezuela and near the ports of Guayaquil, Ecuador and Callao, Peru. In addition to drug trafficking and piracy, the threats from illegal fishing and boat accidents are present. Illegal fishing poses the threat of anchors dragging or cutting cables, while boat accidents are a threat due to the busy shipping lanes and ports in the area, particularly in the area of the Panama Canal. 

Map highlighting the South American Crossing
As an example of the threats to a subsea telecom cable, we can use the South American Crossing Cable (SAC) which has a number of landing points in South American countries, including Lurin, Peru; Buenaventura, Colombia; Puerto Viejo, Venezuela; and Santos, Brazil. The location of the cable and the various landing points present their own maritime threats. Piracy targeting large cargo ships and fishermen has been present off Callao, Peru, as well as Guayaquil, Ecuador. The maritime region on the border of Ecuador and Colombia has seen not only a number of piracy incidents, but also a significant amount of drug trafficking activity as shipments of cocaine are moved towards Central America in small low-profile vessels. The landing point in Puerto Viejo, Venezuela is impacted by the political and economic situation in the country, which has led to incidences of piracy in recent years. Finally, the port of Santos in Brazil sees the bulk of the cocaine being shipped from Brazil to European and African countries, and therefore corruption among dock workers and threats from drug traffickers to ships is present, which could impact cable laying ships present. [Source: https://www.submarinecablemap.com/]

 

Analysis

The opportunities for the telecom sector in South America are substantial due to the continued number of areas which lack connectivity. The gaps in connectivity have been put on display in recent months during the COVID-19 pandemic, as lockdown measures are put in place and people are forced to work remotely and students are forced to learn remotely. Protests have taken place in a number of countries, such as in Ecuador, where not only were people protesting about educational budget cuts, but also about the gaps in connectivity which led to some students unable to take part in e-learning. The effects of COVID-19 has also led Brazil to delay its plan to hold its 5G frequency auction to 2021, while Colombia’s Claro Colombia has been given permission to carry out 5G tests as part of a pilot programme which had been delayed in March when the pandemic took hold of the country. The country plans to roll out a 5G network by the end of 2022. 

With 5G still in its infancy in the region, and with most countries still in development phases, it's likely that we continue to see small scale protests and acts of vandalism towards 5G or suspected-5G infrastructure, as people continue to believe that 5G is harmful for humans and the environment, and social media continues to play its part in spreading misinformation. Acts of vandalism and theft of fiber optic cables and telephone cables are almost certain to continue as the price of copper remains high after rebounding from an initial downturn in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when the demand dropped due to lockdowns in China, and the closure of mines in South America. This will continue to lead to high costs for telecom companies to repair infrastructure and also cause downtime for customers and businesses. As for the activities of armed groups, it's unlikely to change in 2020, and during that time telecom infrastructure may be targeted and companies may be extorted.

Threats to industries, including the telecom sector, are ever changing and it's becoming increasingly important for companies to maintain situational awareness on all threats in the countries in which they operate, in order to be better prepared to respond to crises.

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