With the delicate international economy, basic essential commodities such as metal have reached uncommonly high value. Naturally this has made the use of metals such as copper in fundamental infrastructural areas like telecommunications or railways, a tempting target for theft and the effects of vandalism on ordinary businesses and everyone who relies upon them can be devastating.

The figures already show that metal theft has become a real and increasing threat to the UK telecoms infrastructure. Figures from British Telecom suggest metal theft costs our economy around £770m a year, with a significant rise in copper prices being a key contributory factor to the problem.

The report also highlights that metal theft has become a global phenomenon, with governments around the world looking to tighten the illegal trade of valuable metal to stem the problem.

Metal theft left a very definite impression on marine-based civil engineering, dredging and remediation projects specialists Land & Water Group Ltd when it’s Guildford head office fell victim to such an attack in 2011. Having found their critical IP services unavailable one morning, and with no obvious reason for the problem, the company contacted us (as its outsourced IT supplier) to investigate the problem.

Having logged it with the company’s Internet Service Provider and British Telecom it was soon discovered the cause was the theft of vital copper cabling from the main telecoms line in the nearby street.

Needless to say, completely losing its connection to the internet was a real eye-opener for Land & Water. It was made worse by the fact that it wasn’t simply a software or hardware failing – the cabling was literally ripped from the ground, which understandably caused a real headache for British Telecom to repair and replace.

Land & Water not only faced the complete loss of its online connection, but worse still the connection to its servers and critical systems was also severed from the outside world – so it wasn’t simply a question of employees accessing services by working at home or from another site. It also caused problems for access to centrally based business systems shared with the company’s other offices in Appleby Magna in Leicestershire and in Norwich.

Because telecoms engineers had to assess the damage, Land & Water were left with an uncertain amount of downtime. To resolve the problem, they found a solution that would ensure their business continuity and found an alternative hosting location for their servers whilst the repairs were completed. This allowed Land and Water’s team to work remotely from a different location, realising some of the major benefits of remote network access.

What the Land & Water case proved was that metal theft can cause enormous difficulties to a business, even when a company has a seemingly robust IT and telecoms regime, because it effectively severs the workplace and its IT resources from the rest of the world.

However there are still positive ways to mitigate the fallout from these disruptions and it should be part of an ongoing business continuity plan that is in place for any emergency – be it bad weather, a fire or any other unexpected eventuality. There should always be a backup plan that is specifically tailored to the individual needs of the business which gives the opportunity to continue with a minimum of disruption.

In the case of Land & Water it had suffered from a serious denial of service from the incident; however the company had already been looking at the potential for moving some of its IT services to an online ‘cloud’-type model and the incident helped to accelerate this strategic IT move.

Whilst all telecoms-dependent businesses’ infrastructure is a risk from this kind of incident (especially at the point of which it connects to the wider telecoms network), good datacentres tend to use numerous redundant network lines to avoid issues, so in the eventuality of disruption from cable theft servers can continue unabated. By spreading the potential risk of communications disruption from one access point, companies can seriously reduce the likelihood of being cut off completely.

Thankfully there are also concerted efforts by the Government and local infrastructure providers in curtailing criminals from committing metal theft in the first place. As well as making the infrastructure more secure, service providers are already looking at alternatives including alternative types of cabling that are less valuable, to address the issue. The Government is also investigating ways of tightening legislation on the sale of metal and making it much harder to make money from stolen materials and thus a less attractive activity.