Helios Towers (HT) was founded in 2009 and concluded its first tower sales and lease back deal (S&LB) deal with Millicom in Ghana. Subsequently, HT has undertaken similar deals in Congo Brazzaville, DRC, and Tanzania. In 2018, Helios Towers entered the South African market.
HT’s principal business lies in building, acquiring and operating telecommunications towers that are capable of accommodating and powering the needs of multiple tenants. These tenants are typically large MNOs and other telecommunications providers who in turn provide wireless voice and data services, primarily to end-consumers and businesses.
HT uses the sales and lease back method of buying towers from mobile network operators.
By end 2018:
- HT had acquired 82% and had built 18% of its total tower stock (total towers 6 745) since commencing operations in Africa.
- In 2018, there were 13 549 tenants that yielded an average tenancy across its towers of 2.01x.
- In 2018, HT earned an average of USD4 435 per month per tower, or USD2 208 per customer per tower per month.
In 2018 HT entered into a partnership with Vulatel (Pty) Ltd and formed Helios Towers SA (HTSA) with HT owning 66% and Vulatal 34%. Vulatel has been in operation since 2017. The company acquired Dimension Data’s fibre and wireless division (formerly Plessey South Africa).
Subsequently, Vulatel acquired Gio Construction, a provider of network deployment and maintenance services.
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The East Africa Com conference took place in Nairobi, Kenya during the days 14 and 15 May 2019. The overarching theme of the conference was new technologies enabling the emerging digital world and digital transformation. The specific focus of the conference was also on how these developments will unfold in East Africa and the impact they are likely to have across economic, social and government environments in the region.
The eco-system was well-represented at the conference, with organisations from the ICT industry, financial institutions, parastatal utilities, government entities and academia inter alia. Theoretical discussions were supported by ample examples of current uses cases for new technologies in East Africa.
The topics at the conference dealt with a wide range of subjects, tackling issues such as:
- Quality broadband connectivity and “affordable” access to ensure maximum socio-economic inclusivity in Africa (this continues to be a pertinent topic despite years of private sector and government initiatives);
- Adoption and application of new technologies (such as Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning) in various vertical industries and government agencies to deliver new and improved services to customers;
- Democratisation of data to make it more readily available for analysis to solve socio-economic problems through development of correct policies, yet remaining mindful of the requirement for data anonymity;
- Digital transformation among organisations in East Africa to become more efficient and globally competitive, and positioning for the 4th Industrial Revolution;
- Mobile money and financial inclusion; and
- Growing women leaders in ICT and business in general.
On the last point, the East Africa Com conference has developed a partnership with ITC SheTrades, an initiative of the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations. The SheTrades initiative aims to connect three million women to market by 2021, facilitating opportunities for women entrepreneurs, supported by a web and mobile digital platform. At the conference, the emphasis was placed on bringing women into the tech sector and using technology to enable women to participate in economic activities to a greater extent. This would unlock a lot of additional value and grow the global economy, especially in developing markets.
Connecting ICT stakeholders
The AHUB again proved to be a very useful medium of connecting local technology start-ups with investors, operators and large corporates to foment collaboration on new projects and (hopefully) mutually beneficial partnerships. The discussion panel on “Realising synergies between MNOs and African tech start-ups” illustrated initiatives already in place aimed at creating an environment conducive to start-up development and success, although still only 1 in 10 start-ups achieve some form of success (including survival beyond the short term). Revenue splits from commercial products (such as apps) continue to be skewed in favour of large mobile operators who claim they provider greater inputs into the partnership. This can stymie the growth of start-ups into sustainable companies.
Building a successful digital economy
To build a successful digital economy in East Africa a number of more basic building blocks still need to be put in place. For instance, liberalisation of immigration laws to attract foreign skills and direct investment, or creation of incentive schemes to experiment with new technologies through pilots (“sand boxes”) free from bureaucratic constraints. Availability of requisite spectrum for new access technologies (such as 5G) timeously is also critical.
Regulating new technology
One of the recurring discussion points at the conference revolved around regulating the new technologies and services in the digital world. One first needs to understand what it is that one tries to regulate, which is what the governments and regulatory authorities in many markets are currently trying to achieve. Unfortunately, the consensus was that we are likely to see more rather than less regulation, which is also bound to become more complex with increasing complexity of the digital environment around us. This is at a time when most stakeholders hope to see less, not more, regulation to allow for freer development of the digital future. It is critical for governments and regulatory authorities to embrace new technologies, rather than stifle them with over-regulation, lest we miss out on opportunities the new technologies offer.
4th Industrial Revolution
In a sense, Africa is already well suited to the 4th Industrial Revolution. Out of necessity, and limited formal jobs, the gig economy is alive and well. New technologies such as AI, ML and mixed reality innovation will drive these opportunities and create more formal job. An example is the recent launch of the Africa Development Centre by Microsoft in Nairobi, Kenya and Lago, Nigeria which will bring USD100 million of investment and 500 engineering jobs over the next five years. Africa can take advantage of its young population to drive this growth but it first needs to create capacity.
Fibre broadband connectivity has been much talked about in many markets in Africa over the past few years. It is touted as required infrastructure for the next generation of services both in the business and residential markets – from operating out of the cloud by small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) to eGovernment services to future household entertainment (streaming content).
Factors limiting fibre growth
Yet, with the exception of a few countries, the growth of fibre access networks has been very limited in across most of the African continent. This can be ascribed to a number of factors, including:
- Cost of fibre infrastructure deployment – This remains quite high in many markets and makes for a difficult business case, given the service adoption rates (although aerial fibre deployment is less expensive). It is less expensive to build wireless networks.
- Cost of infrastructure maintenance – Once a fibre network has been built, the cost of maintenance and repairs can also be quite high if the fibre cable keeps being damaged due to other infrastructure development in the same area.
- Small target market – Socio-economic development is often still slow, with slow middle class growth, and correspondingly low affordability levels. This is coupled with comparatively high prices of fibre connectivity, paying a premium for a superior service. In the business market, and in particular small businesses, the level of maturity (and often also affordability) limits the adoption of fibre broadband.
Fibre Access Infrastructure Market
The fibre access infrastructure provider environment tends to be quite fragmented in many markets, with a number of smaller fibre network operators (FNOs) operational. It is difficult for small operators to maintain a sustainable operation with a small footprint. Hence, in most markets in Africa, operators follow a multi-technology strategy, where possible, for the provision of connectivity services. Fibre is one of the technologies used but most of the connections may be provided wirelessly. Only in a limited number of cases have we seen the evolution of a pure fibre access infrastructure provider. This is most pronounced in South Africa, where around 50 FNOs are operational. Many of them very small and unsustainable. This leads to growing consolidation in this market.
As at mid-2018, there were 136 commercial FTTH / FTTB networks operational in Africa in 40 countries (including territories) and another ten networks either planned or in deployment. The presence of fibre broadband infrastructure on the African continent and growth over the past few years are presented below. The year-on-year growth of connected premises from mid-2017 to mid-2018 was 75%.
Fibre broadband uptake is concentrated in a handful of country markets, with almost 97% of total fibre connections on the continent (top five account for 85% of total). Even at that, household penetration is very low in these countries. The notable exceptions are Mauritius (where fibre deployment is being pursued as a national strategy) and La Réunion – both small islands with small populations in the Indian Ocean. This concentration of fibre broadband in several market on the continent is illustrated in the following graphic.
Some of the key market trends observed in the fibre broadband market are:
- Access infrastructure has been expanding and improving, underpinned by improving national long-haul and metro backhaul infrastructure.
- Pricing of fibre-based products has seen some reduction, making the products more affordable. This is combined with increasing disposable income levels (at least in growing economies).
- Economic improvements (not in all markets) have led to improved business climate and demand for fibre-based services.
- Government policy direction moving towards national fibre roll-out, digital agenda, etc.
- Access to relevant content has been improving.
The present FTTH / FTTB market landscape in Africa provides for a number of opportunities going forward. These include:
- Lack of legacy fixed infrastructure in many markets presents an opportunity to address this shortage with fibre. However, this can also be a challenge due to, for instance, lack of duct infrastructure which could be reused to lower the cost of deployment or lack of fixed line product / service culture and understanding of such products / services within the target user base.
- Middle class migration to gated communities / complexes and increasing concentration of businesses in office parks means that the potential users can be reached more easily at a lower cost. New residential and business developments also provide an opportunity for greenfields fibre infrastructure deployment in such premises.
- Once the first wave of FTTH deployment and uptake is past its peak (this may take a number of years in most markets in Africa), the cost of deployment and provision of services may be suitable for a second wave to address the lower socio-economic segments.
- The fragmented fibre infrastructure provider environment presents M&A opportunities for (typically) larger operators or non-telecoms investors.
Future evolution of the FTTH / FTTB markets in Africa will be driven by a combination of socio-economic development and government policies.
However, given the diversity of markets in Africa in terms of ICT and socio-economic development, the pace of fibre broadband deployment and adoption will also differ significantly from country to country over the next five years. The expected market evolution trends are highlighted below.
- Greater focus on back selling of fibre services to achieve higher connectivity rate of homes passed.
- Geographic expansion of the FTTH footprint (although limited to main cities in most countries).
- Introduction of new products (including smaller bundled offers) to address households with lower disposable income levels (than the top end).
- Introduction of converged products combining fixed and mobile services.
- Increase in relevant content (requiring fast and reliable internet access) will drive uptake.
- Continued downward trend in retail prices of fibre products, resulting in greater affordability.
- Geographic expansion of the FTTB footprint (although limited to main cities).
- Introduction of converged products combining fixed and mobile services.
- Move towards IoT (and IoE) over time, requiring greater good quality connectivity.
- Government policy direction aimed at expansion of broadband (including fibre) infrastructure and services to drive socio-economic development.
- Growth in maturity of the business community, realising the benefits of IP and cloud services. Fibre will be used for delivery of these services.