UK broadband infrastructure vandalism attacks on the rise

Vandalism against our broadband infrastructure is on the rise – what's happening, and how will it affect you?

Wednesday, 1 May, 2024

It’s fair to say we are living in hostile times.

Pandemic restrictions on personal freedom enraged sections of a population already tiring of endemic corporate failings and institutional incompetence.

It also fuelled the conspiracy theorists who are often at the forefront of civil disobedience, public opposition and campaigning.

And while the internet has become the chosen vector for popular anger, it’s also a target in its own right.

A nation on fire

Broadband infrastructure attacks are symbols of a society that’s increasingly divided, mistrusting and intolerant.

The internet itself is being viewed with suspicion, with endless conspiracy theories surrounding 5G – a potential replacement for full fibre broadband networks.

Depending on who you listen to, 5G spreads COVID-19, weakens the immune system, kills birds and insects, causes radiation and cancer, spies on us and is a stealth weapons system.

(We’ll momentarily overlook the Huawei saga, where Chinese-powered technology added some unhelpful legitimacy to public distrust of fifth-generation cellular connectivity).

None of these conspiracy theories have any scientific credibility, but the “prove they’re not true” argument has been enough to convince many.

This has led to violent protests against 5G mobile masts, with telephone poles and 4G towers often mistaken for 5G infrastructure before set on fire or vandalised.

The broadband engineers responsible for maintaining fibre broadband hardware and 3G/4G cell towers have themselves been spat on, assaulted and hounded out of residential areas.

Stealing a living

Antagonism and vandalism towards broadband infrastructure has coincided with two unfortunate and related events – a cost of living crisis and negligent policing.

With police forces effectively decriminalising many ‘low-level’ offences, emboldened criminals have been ruthless in exploiting the inevitable vacuum.

The batteries and copper cabling used in much of our broadband infrastructure has proved irresistible to thieves, who are routinely helping themselves to valuable network equipment.

Although telecom networks are sometimes classed as critical national infrastructure, attempts at preventing or prosecuting thefts have often been feeble.

A host of leading network operators wrote to Ofcom last month, demanding far tougher criminal sanctions and more engagement from the police.

Some industry observers have also pointed out that broadband networks are often poorly designed and inadequately protected, simplifying the work of thieves.

What does this mean for consumers?

Broadband infrastructure attacks have become far more common in recent years – which is why you shouldn’t automatically blame your ISP next time your broadband fails.

They can hardly be held accountable if someone has stripped the copper out of a local network, or set fire to a 4G mast in the mistaken belief they’re preventing cancer.

If you don’t already have full fibre broadband, its subterranean nature means it’s less likely to experience damage than overground Fibre to the Cabinet connections of 10-65Mbps.

Check local newspapers for stories of network attacks – ISPs are rarely targeted specifically, but some have less network resilience than others, and may therefore endure more outages.

While mobile dongles and MiFi hubs have their merits (particularly when moving house), they’re more susceptible to overground infrastructure being damaged than fibre broadband.

If you are moving house, ensure a potential new property has decent mobile connectivity in case broadband infrastructure attacks force the latter offline at any point.

If your internet goes down and you don’t have a good phone signal (or a landline), even contacting the emergency services could be difficult – let alone working from home…

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!