American Tower Corporation (ATC), the company that acquired Cell C’s base station infrastructure last year in a R430m deal, has begun building its own mobile telecommunications towers from scratch in areas where operators have poor coverage.
ATC SA CEO Pieter Nel says the company has just completed its first site in Bisho in the Eastern Cape and has already signed three tenants that want to erect radio communications infrastructure on the tower.
Nel says ATC has plans to build “hundreds” of new towers across the country, but admits that securing the right permits and environmental approvals can take a long time. “It doesn’t take less than nine months to get a new site properly permitted,” he says. “We’ll build as many of them as we can.”
He says the company will focus specifically on areas where there are coverage gaps. “We are proving the concept with our partners, and it will build momentum over the next two or three years.”
Rural sites have become more attractive than they were in the past, and with new spectrum in the 800MHz and 2,6GHz bands to be allocated by industry regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa), in coming years, Nel believes there is a big opportunity for independent tower operators like ATC to build and acquire tower infrastructure.
“We are also interested in buying more towers from existing players and building our own,” he says. “We are just very impatient about the spectrum issues because we are so well positioned for the new broadband players that will get licensed. We have a good proposition and we are hungry for that business.”
ATC now operates all of Cell C’s 1 364 base stations countrywide. The next phase of the project will involve the purchase and transfer of new sites that the mobile operator is constructing with its Chinese infrastructure partners. As many as 1 800 additional towers will be built in the next three years in both metropolitan and rural areas.
“I think it’s fair to say that the industry is changing and the bigger players are seriously considering options to extract value. Would Telkom, MTN and Vodacom offload their towers? I’m not sure they’d do it outright, but they are all exploring ways of extracting value.” — Duncan McLeod, TechCentral
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