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Cambridgeshire Cable Theft Knocks Out Broadband for 4,000 Homes UPDATE

Friday, August 30th, 2019 (5:08 pm) - Score 4,065

Openreach’s (BT) broadband ISP and phone network in Cambridgeshire (England) has been struck by a series of “major cable thefts” over the past two weeks, which is understood to have disrupted communication services for around 4,000 premises. A reward of £1,000 is being offered to help catch the criminals.

Sadly criminals like this cause misery for many thousands of people every year by pulling huge amounts of Openreach’s copper telecoms cable out of the ground (aka – Metal Theft), which is then sold on to dodgy scrap dealers. Some such cables are forensically tagged with SmartWater, which can help to trace the theft, but this isn’t true everywhere and tracking down the thieves remains extremely difficult.

In this case large sections of live cable were pulled from the underground communications network along rural routes near the villages of Caxton and Swavesey. All of the thefts have tended to occur between 10pm and 5am, when few people were around to notice. A number of similar events have also impacted local power cables, albeit only those that were sitting in storage.

Significant damage was also caused to adjacent farmland, where the cables have been dragged across local fields. Sadly fixing damage like this often requires a significant amount of work and can take several days or, in extreme cases, possibly even weeks to resolve. Openreach said they are working around the clock to repair the local infrastructure.

Bernie Auguste, Openreach’s Director of Security Services, said:

“These incidents have severely impacted the day-to-day lives of people in two areas of Cambridgeshire. We are working closely with the police to catch those who are responsible and have deployed additional security enhancements across the area, but we also need your help.

Please be vigilant and if you saw anything suspicious on or around the time of the incidents, report it. If you prefer not to speak directly to police, then please contact the charity Crimestoppers anonymously.”

Annabelle Goodenough, Crimestoppers Regional Manager, added:

“It might appear that no one is harmed or that this is a victimless crime, but the impact on communities is significant. Cable theft disrupts essential broadband services and can even impact on local emergency and essential public services. Those involved care little for the consequences of their actions, which is why we are asking anyone with information on those responsible to speak up.”

Openreach has a partnership with Crimestoppers, which means they’re offering a reward of up to £1,000 for information on these cable thefts leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible. If you have any information on this incident, please contact them on 0800 555 111 or use the online form – everyone stays 100% anonymous (information passed directly to the police will not qualify for a reward).

On the upside thefts like this appear to have declined since the introduction of SmartWater and the 2013 Scrap Metal Dealers Act, although we suspect that Openreach’s long-term work to replace many of its older core copper cables with newer “full fibre” infrastructure will ultimately deliver the biggest impact (fibre isn’t worth anything to criminals).

UPDATE 3rd September 2019

A similar incident has now occurred after large sections of live cable were pulled from the underground communications network along New Road, Abbey Wood in South East London. The theft occurred between 1am and 4am on 29th August and promptly knocked out broadband services for hundreds of local properties around Thamesmead. Once again a £1,000 reward is being offer via Crimestoppers.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
Leave a Comment
16 Responses
  1. A_Builder says:

    Yet another good reason to stop using copper.

    Fibre has no resale value.

    Although it is a nightmare for those affected.

    That being said it should be blindingly obvious that a cable is severed from the exchange, loads of lines to one location go down at the same time, and it should also be possible to identify the point of the break, by reflected ping timing. So if OR could be bothered plod or a drone could be automatically vectored in on the theft.

    1. AnotherTim says:

      Even fibre is at risk of damage from thefts as not all metal scavengers can tell the difference, and it can affect a lot more than 4000 premises…


    2. FibreBubble says:

      Cable thieves determine whether a cable is metal or fibre by cutting it. Altcos with plant at the side of railway lines suffer this problem regularly.

    3. David Ritchie says:

      Using ping to determine where a break has occurred over a few miles of cable just isn’t going to be accurate. OR have monitoring in place but the problem is always going to be getting resources, ie the police, on site quickly. Id imagine in the dead of night there are probably about a dozen officers on duty at most across East Anglia. There is very little chance of catching them in the act.

    4. beany says:

      “Cable thieves determine whether a cable is metal or fibre by cutting it. ”

      Yep the difference is when they do and discover it is not copper the thieves which have half a clue just leave it. And rejoining a cable is far, far, far easier than having to replace something that gets take.

    5. FibreBubble says:

      Most cable thief damage that effects customers is cuts rather than removal. What they are after is a cut cable that doesn’t generate any response.

    6. beany says:

      This cable clearly was not already a “cut” or not connected cable. If it were it would not affect any connections if you took it, because nothing would be using/connected to it in the first place.

  2. A_Builder says:

    @FibreBubble @AnotherTim

    True but if the scavengers didn’t find any copper they would stop looking for it.

    Whilst I appreciate that an armoured fibre looks and feels like a power cable, the sort of fibres that OR put into their ducts don’t look like a worthwhile copper haul.

    1. TheFacts says:

      Yes, bit of a nuisance that copper has to be used for power cables…

    2. CarlT says:

      You’re expecting copper thieves to be delicate enough that they’ll cut into ducts without harming the cable inside?

      I suspect they won’t be that selective.

    3. beany says:

      “Yes, bit of a nuisance that copper has to be used for power cables…”

      You would get a bit of a shock (literally) if you cut into a main power line.

    4. FibreBubble says:

      There are two types of thieves in play. Scavengers which will always be about, small scale and given well below market rate at opportunist scrap yards and organised crime where the haul is containered out of the country.

    5. A_Builder says:



      Things have tightened up a lot in the UK.

      The problem is the organised big scale gangs who don’t care about anything.

  3. Roger_Gooner says:

    It isn’t just copper as thefts include church roof lead and rail track (I once turned up at Bounds Green Tube station to find the station closed due to overnight track theft). Much of this wouldn’t happen if councils and police cracked down on scrap yards which pay in cash with no questions asked.

    1. A_Builder says:

      The situation did get better for a while after the strap yards could only pay into a card.

      After a few failed prosecutions, the most well known one being about BT cable theft, the Police and EA have let the ball drop.

  4. anon says:

    Wow. Only £1K?

    I bet BT are going to hand that over through clenched teeth.

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