When I decided to prefix the title of this article with “Infrastructure sharing:”, I realised it would make some readers protest that this is technically wrong as it’s not strictly a form of infrastructure sharing. So, Infrastructure as a Service? As correct as it feels it’s also an abuse of something else. But then again, active telecoms infrastructure is now increasingly getting virtualised, so much it will itself become passive. So IaaS is closer to this than it looks right now.
The point of this post is not to argue definitions of sharing. Sharing is just an ongoing discussion in Zimbabwe right now. The current mode, of everyone building their own passive infrastructure is not efficient. Passive infrastructure costs are things like building roads to towers in remote areas, the base station towers, base station power generators, keeping these fueled, trenching for fibre, laying ducts for fibre and all other civil work and materials that go into having a live network.
It’s the typical stuff that, ideally, a mobile network operator would rather someone else focused on so that they’d just focus on creating stuff like EcoCash, the Facebook Bundles, Telecare and so on. Unless, like POTRAZ asked yesterday (and some agreed with), network coverage alone is a point of competition in Zimbabwe right now which would mean the market hasn’t matured enough to compete on innovative models/marketing ideas etc…
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The general feeling from most local operators though, from what we could gather yesterday at least, is that a third party infrastructure company that would ideally build its own infrastructure as well as buy existing infrastructure from current providers, would be the best solution. Such a company wouldn’t have qualms about building in redundant capacity in the hopes of selling it to providers in future. They’d have it inbuilt in their model to forecast uptake, prepare for it, and factor it well into their pricing and still manage to keep it attractive to their customers (the operators)
Learning this morning therefore that in Zambia and Rwanda, Airtel has just concluded the sell of its tower assets to an infrastructure company called IHS Holdings, was welcome as proof of model. Not that the model hasn’t been proven in other parts of the continent. In November, Airtel itself sold 4,800 towers in Nigeria to American Tower Company. In September, Airtel sold some 3,500 towers to another infrastructure company called Eaton Towers. And then earlier in July, sold some to Helios Towers. It’s not just Airtel – Orange in Uganda has also gone for the model too. So has Kenyan operators, Nigerian operators and more.
There’s clearly no shortage of Tower companies looking to expand on the continent. And no shortage of Zimbabweans working in high positions at such companies too! There’s of course the indigenisation position to be clear about before such companies are interested in investing in Zimbabwe. The flip side is that there’s also no shortage of “normal-government countries” to work in for investors.
Event if there was competition on infrastructure, the operators themselves (including Econet) have said that managing base stations is a pain. They have also said that dealing with local authorities to get the required permissions to do stuff on the ground is very slow and painful. What better solution than to hand this over to a company whose whole point of existence is dealing with such pains, and has therefore adapted to a point they thrive in the face of what seem like huge pains to regular telecoms operators?