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Who is leading Africa’s digital infrastructure investment to enable technology of the future?

Leaders from the largest African telecom, media and technology companies, investment banks and investors are meeting to assess the latest investment opportunities at the annual TMT Finance Africa in Cape Town 2019 conference on March 28. (COURTESY PHOTO)

AFRICA – Digital and broadband infrastructure investment is clearly one of the top priorities for Africa’s key telecom operators and investment firms in 2019. In this article, leaders from MTN, C-Squared, Seacom and Convergence Partners discuss the critical issues ahead of their speaking roles at TMT Finance Africa in Cape Town 2019

With the huge and increasing demand for data and increasing opportunities for 5G and fibre, digital communications companies including mobile and fixed operators, as well as a range of digital infrastructure specialists and investors, are targeting significant investments in new digital infrastructure.

Byron Clatterbuck, CEO Seacom, one of Africa’s leading submarine and terrestrial broadband operators, sees a really opportunity in making the case for fibre in Africa: “Fibre penetration is still very low in most African countries, so huge opportunities exist to get involved in the rollout of intra-regional projects, national projects, and even international subsea infrastructure projects.  The global cloud services companies are now putting Africa on their development roadmap, and committing significant investment to several African markets.”

For Clatterbuck, this presents a big opportunity for other investors to leverage these investments and to cooperate with these global giants in delivering new services to the business and home markets.

Envir Fraser, CSO  and Partner at Convergence Partners, an impact investment management firm focused on the telecommunications, media and technology sector in Africa, expects broadband to continue offering investment opportunities as the need for high quality broadband increases with step changes in prices. “This does mean that the opportunities are shifting from pure greenfield builds and opportunities to brownfield expansion and consolidation in the sector. The needs for “big pipes” to realise the 5G reality will also need increased investment in connecting towers and high sites to high-speed fibre or wireless backhaul networks”, says Fraser.

Working with governments on digital infrastructure investment

To help maintain a high level of investment, Kholekile, Ndamase, Executive: Group Mergers and Acquisitions at MTN, Africa’s biggest mobile telecommunications operator, warns Governments should have a careful plan when considering the licensing questions such as coverage obligations vs license fees vs a fund to finance rural connectivity.

“If government could forego the immediate remuneration of a license fee and opportunity costs of localisations, but instead placed reasonable coverage obligations on operators, it may be more beneficial in the long run to have all their citizens connected to digital and have them participating in the digitally-enabled economy. Making more spectrum available in certain markets would also reduce network congestion and Capex expenditure which will allow the much-needed capital to be spent in the more underserved areas”, Ndamase explains.

Expect consolidation in digital and fibre infrastructure 

Consolidation in the sector is also to be expected, according to Alexander Kiel, CFO, at CSquared, the Google-backed African fibre network operator. “Fibre, like other infrastructure, is a game of scale, we do expect some consolidation to happen over time, with it most likely to start with the transfer of management of public fiber assets to private operators.” Over time, as fibrecos increase in scale and expertise, Kiel also expects to see more sale and lease-back deals between the fibrecos and the mobile operators.

For Seacom’s Clatterbuck, “whether it is MNOs trying to bring together a number of African “OpCos” under one brand with synergies at the group level, or it is “fixed” fibre operators consolidating to control and manage as much of the end-to-end network as possible, there is no shortage of M&A and funding opportunities in Africa.  “Consolidation will continue as markets grow and possibly shrink, and as global players look for market entry vehicles going forward,” he says.

Who will be leading fibre investment?

In the next 12 to 18 months, CSquared’s Kiel expects a number of greenfield projects to come out, with multiple roll-outs, “especially in the metro areas where there is still a gap… these deployments will be driven by mobile operators and independent fibrecos”, he comments.

In about five years time, Convergence’s Fraser foresees a market with a limited number of scale players offering a broader set of offerings to operators. He expects “a shift to customer-focused services and product offerings as well as continued increase in bandwidth speeds.”

As for MTN’s Ndamase, “fibre and 5G will open up a whole new experience for consumers with particular benefits will not necessarily be seen with the way we currently experience the digital world.” He reckons industries such as Autonomous Vehicles, Automation of business processes, VR & AR and a whole host of other industries that are yet to appear will primarily benefit from this shift.

Leaders from the largest African telecom, media and technology companies, investment banks and investors are meeting to assess the latest investment opportunities at the annual TMT Finance Africa in Cape Town 2019 conference on March 28.

Over 75 key speakers have been announced for the event, which features CxOs and senior executives from Vodacom, MTN, Rand Merchant Bank, Vumatel, Helios Towers Africa, ENSafrica, CSquared, Dark Fibre Africa, Convergence Partners, Seacom, Angola Cables, Standard Bank, IFC World Bank, DLA Piper, WIOCC, Paix Data Centres, BCX, European Investment Bank, Investec Asset Management, GreenWish Partners and others.

Key sessions at the senior executive only event include, Telecom Leadership Africa; Broadband Infrastructure; Digital Infrastructure Africa; Next Generation Media; Powering Mobile Towers; Data Centre and Cloud; Mergers and Acquisitions; TMT Investor Strategies; Broadband Infrastructure; Financing TMT; Fintech and Mobile Money; and Smart City.

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