Telecom industry wants tougher penalties for copper thieves

The Canadian telecommunications industry is facing a growing crisis as copper wire thieves continue to wreak havoc across the country. These brazen criminals are repeatedly cutting the copper wires off telephone poles, causing widespread service outages that can leave thousands of customers without access to essential phone and internet services. According to estimates from the Canadian Telecommunications Association, the number of these incidents has grown by a staggering 200% annually from 2021 to 2023, creating a major disruption to critical communications infrastructure.

The industry argues that these service interruptions pose a serious public safety risk, as customers may be unable to call emergency services like 911 when they need them most. Copper wire is a key component not just of traditional telephone and DSL internet lines, but also fibre-optic cables, meaning these thieves are causing damage that can impact a wide range of telecom services. While the full scope of the problem is difficult to quantify nationally, Statistics Canada data shows that metal theft overall, which includes copper wire, grew by 56% between 2018 and 2022. This surge in criminal activity has coincided with a sharp rise in the global price of copper, which reached over $11,000 US per ton this past spring.

Copper is an increasingly valuable commodity as demand grows for its use in low-carbon technologies like electric vehicles and renewable energy generators. However, the supply has struggled to keep pace, creating a lucrative black market opportunity for unscrupulous thieves. The industry is pushing for stiffer penalties to deter these crimes, with current laws allowing for up to 10 years in prison if the value of the stolen materials exceeds $5,000. A proposed anti-foreign meddling bill may also introduce new “sabotage” offences targeting copper wire theft, though only if it’s done with the intent of endangering Canada’s national security.

Some provinces have taken matters into their own hands, implementing legislation that requires scrap metal sellers to provide government identification. Others, like Bell, are turning to the civil courts, launching lawsuits against alleged thieves. With the problem seemingly only growing, the Canadian telecommunications sector is clearly determined to find effective ways to protect its critical infrastructure and ensure reliable service for customers across the country.

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