BUSINESS

Telecom operators isolate themselves from their networks

Cellnex Tower, in Barcelona (Spain), 15 July 2020.

There are many hotel groups that do not own the walls of their hotels, industrialists that do not have a factory … In recent years, following the example of other business sectors, telecommunications operators have started a vast movement of total or partial of their network infrastructures. According to telecommunications analysts at Credit Suisse bank, in less than five years, the cumulative amount of disposals of mobile phone towers or fiber optic lines exceeds 90 billion euros in Europe. And this figure hasn’t stopped swelling.

Long reluctant, Orange ended up convinced. After selling in December 2019 a very small part of the pylons on which its mobile antennas are stowed in Spain, the French operator hosted, in November 2021, its 26,000 French and Spanish towers in a company called Totem. With the desire to open it to other operators and why not merge it with a competitor. “The totem pole is an important resource with significant potential for value creation”, explained Christel Heydemann, the new CEO of Orangeduring the presentation, on Tuesday 26 April, of the operator’s first quarter results.

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On paper, the partial or total sale of this infrastructure and then leasing it to the new owner promises multiple financial benefits. This allows you to carry fresh money into the coffers and, at the same time, to discharge the often heavy debt carried by this equipment. It is therefore logical that the telecommunications trend was launched by operators in need of liquidity.

Stratagem

Bouygues Telecom was the first French telecommunications group to which it sold its masts Spanish Cellnex in 2017. SFR (Altice) followed suit in 2018 with the American fund KKR. Iliad was attempted in 2019. Since then, the operator of Xavier Niel (personal shareholder of World): sold the Iliad towers in Italy and used this scheme to reduce the bill for the acquisition of the Polish operator Play in December 2020. “Anyone who hasn’t sold their towers today passes for an original”, laughs an investment banker.

Another advantage: not very glamorous, these infrastructures are still very expensive, sometimes more than the operators themselves. The maintenance of a telecommunications pylon requires little expense and, depending on the length of the lease contract stipulated with the operator for the installation of its mobile antennas, the owner is guaranteed to receive a ten or fifteen year rent. The same logic for fiber optic networks: the operator sells the property and then pays the rent to be able to borrow it. Investment funds love this combination of profitability and security to the point of spending astronomical sums to get hold of it. Recently put up for sale by Deutsche Telekom, Deutsche Funkturm, the equivalent of Totem for the German operator, could be worth more than 18 billion euros. A record in Europe.

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