Helios Towers – Towering Ambition

We learn how Helios Towers is supporting Africa’s mobile communication infrastructure.

Helios Towers is a pan-African telecom towers business that recently announced its entry into its sixth country on the continent. The company is present in Tanzania, Ghana, South Africa, Congo Brazzaville, the DRC and has just entered Senegal. The business currently operates 7,000 towers across Africa and has over 15,000 tenants and a client list that includes all the major mobile operators across Africa.

It’s a simple business model, a property and power company to mobile operators. We own the towers and the power equipment on-site and lease space on the towers to mobile operators,” explains Helios Towers’ COO, Tom Greenwood. “Our business in Africa is no different to a tower company in the US, India or Europe. We sign long-term contracts, which is standard in the industry around the world. The typical length of contracts are ten to fifteen years for an initial term with automatic renewals thereafter, so 40-year contract lengths are typical within this business. The service we provide is critical to the country, the network operators, and the people in these countries because mobile communications and data are essential for everyday life these days.”

However, while the business model is similar to one implemented the world over, Africa brings some of its own unique challenges.

“What makes Africa different to Europe or the US is that fixed-line communication never really got going in Africa in a big way. In many cases, mobile or using the internet, particularly on mobile devices, is often the only means for people to communicate with each other,” Greenwood acknowledges. “So, our business and the services we provide are crucial for people to be connected. It is something we take extremely seriously and we pride ourselves on providing excellent customer service. That means, as well as enabling the rapid roll-out and deployment of new sites, we’re also keeping those sites up once they’re running; reliably and consistently.”

Helios Towers provides virtually 100% power uptime to its customers, a promise that can be challenging to keep in parts of a country that are not even connected to the grid, or where the grid often does not run 24 hours a day. For these reasons, Helios’s towers often draw power from multiple alternative energy sources including solar power and hybrid solutions.

Vanguard of a New Business Model

Looking at Helios’ business model, one question that might come to mind is “Why don’t the mobile operators simply build their own towers?” Indeed, in the early days, this is what most companies did.

“When you have a number of operators growing and expanding within a market building their own towers and equipment, at that point, the towers are a competitive advantage because without the tower you don’t have the signal,” Greenwood explains. “Over time, as multiple mobile operators build out networks there comes a point where the networks cover similar areas and more and more the actual ownership of the tower becomes less of competitive advantage for the mobile operator, and more of a maintenance burden.”

As the competitive advantages of this model declined, the inefficiencies of it stood out more starkly.

“These towers were also underutilised – imagine a tower 40 or 50 metres tall and using only three or four metres on that space. The towers could be used to share multiple operators’ equipment on those sites,” Greenwood points out. “But because they’re competitors they don’t work well together sharing infrastructure, so that’s why companies like us, independent tower companies, exist, running infrastructure for multiple parties.”

Helios Towers was at the vanguard of this new business model, as Greenwood tells us, “We pioneered the sale and leaseback network model in Africa, tracing back to our activity in Ghana in 2010. This was followed by sale and leaseback transactions in other markets, buying a portfolio from MNOs and selling additional space to other operators in the market.”

As well as acquiring towers and utilising leasebacks, Helios Towers is also building new sites.

“We have an offering called ‘Built to Suit’ where we will build a new site in a location an operator wants to go to, deploy our own capital if we’re agreeable to the location and use them as an initial tenant or anchor tenant while we locate others over time,” Greenwood says. “Of our 7,000 towers, roughly 5,000 were obtained through acquisitions and roughly 2,000 we built ourselves.”

That expansion is continuing apace in Senegal, where a further 1,220 sites are currently being acquired and Helios has committed to building 400 more.

Rising to the Challenge

Africa is no small market to serve, with even individual countries being vast in size and often with limiting existing infrastructure.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve operationally and adapt to those challenges,” Greenwood says. “It’s a continuous challenge, so we always need to adapt and tweak our processes and structures.”

Recently, those challenges have been compounded by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The telecoms industry as a whole has been a crucial part of people surviving and getting through COVID-19 and the lockdown,” Greenwood insists. “Whether it is business or personal, being able to do video calls and being able to speak to people, buy things, trade and access banking, education and healthcare, people need to be connected. We have seen an increase in volumes going through our mobile network customers, particularly in data services because of additional video calls and app use. As the infrastructure provider, we have been focused on keeping sites running with maximum power uptime.”

It is a challenge that Helios has risen to meet admirably, with Greenwood noting, “In June we had our best ever month of power uptime delivery, and that’s a testament to the excellent field and support staff we have.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is only emblematic of a larger philosophy in the way Helios Towers works, however.

“Some of the biggest initiatives we have are in environmental, social and corporate governance,” Greenwood says. “We place very high importance on running a sustainable business and that commitment takes many forms for us. First of all, our business model is inherently sustainable and good for the environment because we are encouraging the sharing of tower infrastructure, which enables faster rollout, and a reduction of diesel and carbon emissions.”

As well as big picture sustainability strategies, Helios Towers is also looking locally to support its communities.

“We have a huge focus as well on local management and local staffing,” Greenwood says. “We don’t like having lots of ex-pats running around because we view that as short-term and ultimately not sustainable. Close to 100% of management and staff across our businesses are from the markets in which we operate, and we invest in the long-term professional development of these employees.”

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