It's bad enough people steal cable signal once the plant is installed. But now some ambitious thieves are apparently victimizing cable operators and construction teams before the plant gets on the pole.
Upgrade construction teams have reported the theft of entire rolls of optical fiber, including the trailers on which the massive reels are stored overnight.
The robberies are especially damaging because of the high demand for fiber. If material goes missing, a cable operator or subcontractor must wait more than 18 months for manufacturers to make replacement hardware.
The thefts infuriate companies such as Quality Cable & Fiber Services. That firm, which subcontracts operators' fiber deployments in the Midwest, said it has been victimized twice in the last 30 days.
In the first crime, thieves took the fiber that remained after a day of work on behalf of Adelphia Communications Corp. in Monroe, Mich., on Nov. 17. They also nabbed Quality Cable's trailer, on which the reel had been stored overnight.
The theft cost quality $6,000 in fiber plus the $17,000 value of the trailer, according to vice president and administrative manager Bob Skok.
The company tightened security. But on Dec. 12, it reported that thieves hit it again, this time in Salina, Ohio.
The crew parked the reel, on its trailer, in front of the office of the motel in which they were staying, between two service trucks. But again, thieves took the trailer and a 15,000-foot reel of fiber, company officials said.
The situation points to the downside of clustering. An operator may not have a local warehouse at which a subcontractor can conveniently return unused plant overnight.
To protect the precious plant, Skok said his firm might seek out other local warehouses, store the plant on reel lifters or park its trailers against walls, boxed in by other service vehicles.
"We're worried this is starting to be epidemic," Skok said. Other construction personnel had warned his crews to be careful, he added.
Other companies confirmed the pressure to take extreme measures to protect plant stores due not only to a backlog of fiber orders, but of coax as well.
"We haven't lost any yet, but it's because we keep it in warehouses and we only take out a few days' worth at a time," said Jeff Anderson, vice president of cable operations for Cable Systems Services in Minnesota. "I have 30 of our own systems to rebuild in the next few years, and I don't even know if I can get fiber for that."
Plant theft has been on the rise. In the past few years, operators in Southern states have reported an increase in amplifier theft.
Enterprising thieves there have stolen the hardware from pedestals for export to South America. In the past, they've also targeted coaxial cable, stripping out the copper for resale.
No one wanted to be quoted on the record last week, but a few executives wondered quietly whether a current shortfall in fiber-optic gear was creating conditions for a black market.
Carleton, Mich., police Sgt. Hank Runyan said 12 reels of fiber were recovered in a raid on a drug house in Monroe last week, possibly including Quality Cable's reel.
The owners of 11 of the reels-all of which are coax-have been identified, Runyan said. He believes the fiber-optic plant was stolen in error, he said, because the other reels showed signs they'd been cannibalized for their copper.
"It was a mistake, that would be my guess," Runyan said. "To be a black-market operation, you'd have to have a buyer, a network set-up. These guys weren't the brightest stars in the heavens."