Stealing copper comes with a heavy cost

At a time when the largest telcos are saying that the PSTN should be read its last rites, a recent raft of copper theft at Canadian service provider Telus reiterates the fact that the copper wire that service providers are so set on being rid of is actually even more valuable than the fiber that's replacing it.

"We've taken advantage of the last couple of years to try and harden ourselves against these thieves. We've replaced a lot of our copper cables with fibre optics, because they have no value in the scrap metal industry--they're made of plastic," said Telus spokesperson Shawn Hall.

What this recent theft again proves is that copper is still the dominant wire in all of the incumbent phone carriers and again it will be decades before every telecom wire will be all fiber.

The Canadian telephone giant reported that thieves stole copper and fiber optic cables from telephone poles in two British Columbia Canada locations: Langley bypass and Richmond, BC. Specifically, the thieves stole two 60 meter copper cables from Langley bypass, while in Richmond, BC four fiber cables were cut and one copper cable was stolen.

While no one has been caught yet, the damage was immediately seen as Telus estimated it has to pay about an estimated $50,000 to repair each cable. At the time, Telus customers were advised to use their cell phones for 911 calls and that it was working around the clock to restore landline service.    

What's even more heinous about these crimes is that oftentimes these guys will dress up as telephone workers so area residents would not even notice that a theft could be taking place.

Stealing copper for quick cash has been one of those on-again off-again problems that I have been watching expand and contract since 2007 with the rise and fall of copper prices. According to a recent estimate from precious metal retailer Kitco, copper can now fetch about $3.34 per-pound.

U.S. law enforcement has taken steps in recent years to crack down on copper theft. Working with the former EMBARQ, the Las Vegas police department was able to make 28 arrests in 2007 through a crackdown on copper theft that included an anonymous tip line.

Unfortunately, mining for copper from new housing developments, power companies and telcos, has become a popular mainstream topic that has even been portrayed in popular television shows such as Friday Night Lights where show character Tim Riggins goes along with his older brother on a copper stealing spree from a new housing development.

In addition to cutting off consumer phone service, stealing copper can bring dire consequences for the criminals themselves. Just as EMBARQ launched its 'call before you dig' campaign in April, 2007, a story emerged that geniuses looking to get some quick cash because copper was selling high back then in Nashua, NH actually electrocuted themselves cutting into a live wire. This is not an isolated incident as I have found a number of other stories where thieves were killed trying to steal copper wire from telephone companies and even utility companies.  

So if you're a criminal looking for a quick buck, be aware that your actions could not only cause you harm, but have a rippling affect on a service that consumers expect should work every time they pick up their telephone handset. --Sean