Copper thefts at 3 cell sites in New York highlight vulnerabilities and security systems at towers

A man has been arrested in Putnam County, N.Y., on charges of stealing copper grounding bars from three cell tower facilities there this summer. The arrest highlights not only the ongoing vulnerability of cell sites to theft but also the ways in which cell tower owners and vendors can guard against intrusions and thievery.

The Putnam County Sheriff's Office said that Brian Windover, 38, allegedly stole the grounding bars after breaking into site shelters at towers in Patterson and Kent, N.Y., about 60 to 65 miles north of New York City. According to the Journal News, a local newspaper, security camera footage revealed images of Windover's vehicle after a theft at a tower in Kent on July 27, the police said.

Windover was apprehended on Aug. 14 after Investigator Randall Hill, who was driving an unmarked patrol car, saw a car matching the suspect's vehicle enter a cell tower property in Patterson. Hill then saw Windover break into the facility, the police said. Investigator John Alfano later connected Windover to the theft in Kent and a separate burglary at a cell tower in Patterson on July 23, the report said.

Windover was charged with two counts of third-degree burglary and one count of third-degree criminal mischief -- both felonies -- as well as three counts of third-degree criminal trespass, fourth-degree criminal mischief, and possession of burglar's tools, all misdemeanors, according to the Journal News.

The Putnam County Sheriff's Department told FierceInstaller the matter is still under investigation but that the department had noticed a pattern of similar thefts in the county and surrounding area.

In copper thefts at wireline and wireless facilities, thieves are usually looking to sell stolen copper to scrap yards or on the black market. Grounding bars are used primarily for lightning protection at cell sites.

According to Dow Jones Business News, on Monday copper traded at $2.29 per pound on the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange. A report from 2012 noted that two, 15-pound copper grounding bars stolen from a Verizon cell tower in Independence, Ohio, outside of Cleveland, were valued at $200 each.  

Bill Moten, vice president of solutions development at Tessco Technologies, which specializes in deploying wireless solutions, said that base stations are prime targets for copper thieves not just because of copper grounding but because of the "halo of copper" around the tower itself. He noted that copper also often runs up towers along transmission lines and is often stripped by thieves. Copper also can be found in power lines at cell sites. Whereas transmission lines are often coaxial cables that are not pure copper, grounding bars are often pure copper and command higher prices, Moten noted.

Tessco offers solutions to protect against copper theft, and Moten said that cell site owners can use ground test remote monitors to monitor the grounding system, and if anything disrupts the continual tests, a signal can be sent to notify the owner or relevant authorities via an email or SMS message.

Moten said that cell site owners can also use management systems that have a multitude of sensors to monitor everything from doors that open to signals that come off security cameras. In some systems, if motion is detected, the owner can speak through a microphone to try and find out who or what is there. Monitoring systems can also come with solar or battery backups in case thieves try to cut the power supply to the security systems.

Moten said one carrier that Tessco works with said that 30 percent of its cell sites were at risk for theft, including those in both urban areas with high crime rates and rural areas where few people seldom check on cell sites.

The problem with copper thefts is that they can often take cell sites offline, Moten said, as carriers and cell tower owners work to assess the damage and replace what was stolen. He related a story of one unnamed carrier that had a cell tower adjacent to a hospital that needed service. The carrier thought it was more financially prudent to pay a security guard $50 per hour to guard the cell site than to risk theft and have the cell site go offline -- and deal with the complaints and potential loss of subscribers at the hospital.

For more:
- see this Journal News article
- see this Patch article

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