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Greener Communications: An interview with William Saad

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Greener Communications: An interview with William Saad

Earlier this month Flexenclosure announced it had received an order to supply 1,000 eSite power systems for IHS Towers sites in the Abuja region of central Nigeria. Meanwhile, IHS Towers has set itself some impressive targets, with, for example, the goal of becoming almost diesel neutral across its Zambia portfolio over the next few years through a combination of on and off grid solar solutions. The company is also active in Rwanda where the company is thinking about building a solar farm that could eventually supply power to the national grid.

 

IHS Towers is the largest telecommunications infrastructure provider in Africa, Europe and the Middle East and it is investing heavily in projects that improve energy efficiency in order to reduce the environmental impact of its operations. It has also implemented a number of innovative renewable energy initiatives and diesel reduction strategies in its other key markets, including Cameroon and the Ivory Coast.

REM talked to IHS Towers Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer William Saad to find out more.

Tell me more about IHS and what it does

IHS Towers was set up in 2001 after the privatisation of the Nigerian telecommunications sector and provides services across the full tower value chain including colocation on owned towers, deployment and managed services. The company is now the largest mobile telecommunications infrastructure provider in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, with over 23,300 towers in its portfolio.

IHS’ core business is to run an efficient and effective network. Mobile network operators outsource their tower portfolios to IHS creating three significant and almost immediate benefits: 

  • For the customer: the network improves, uptime increases to over 99 percent and the network expands through sharing towers with other networks.
  • For the mobile network operator: costs are stabilised and capital is released to spend on improving the network and developing products for customers.
  • For Africa: wider, more reliable and efficient networks are built and maintained by professionals, promoting economic growth and protecting the environment.

We achieve this by:

  • The right engineering expertise: our technological know-how and understanding of the wider mobile market is best in class. We build and maintain towers based on extensive knowledge about the environment in which they operate as well as the network technology.
  • The best people on the ground: IHS employs close to 40,000 people directly and indirectly through our exclusive subcontractors and over 95 percent of our employees are local. Our engineers’ local know-how and technological expertise ensures that our towers are fit for purpose on day one and every day thereafter.
  • Respect for the environment and communities we operate in: social and environmental sustainability are at heart of what we do. We are leading the way with our solar-powered towers and continue to make lasting social investments in our local communities.

How many countries around the world do you operate in?

We are the market leading teleco tower operator in each of the five markets in which we operate. This includes:

Nigeria:

IHS Towers began in Nigeria in 2001 and the country remains our largest market. IHS started as a provider of site build services for mobile network operators in Nigeria, but has gone on to develop deep expertise in all aspects of telecom tower management. We currently operate approximately 15,000 towers in the country.

Cameroon:

IHS Cameroon was launched at the end of 2012 and currently operates approximately 2,400 towers in the country.

Côte d'Ivoire:

IHS Côte d'Ivoire was incorporated in October 2012 and currently operates approximately 2,400 towers in the country.

Rwanda:

IHS Rwanda was registered in December 2013 and currently operates approximately 800 towers in the country.

Zambia:  

IHS Zambia was incorporated in December 2013 and currently operates approximately 1,900 towers in the country.

To what extent has mobile communications exploded in Africa and the Middle East in recent years?

Africa is an exciting region, with a median age of 20 and a population that is expected to double. Voice penetration is approx. 70 percent and, while broadband penetration is low, everyone wants it.

Smartphones are now selling for £50 or less, so what’s now needed is the connection. In addition, Africa continues to see strong growth in mobile broadband use and data traffic, the result of several factors which are providing a beneficial environment for investment and customer take-up of services. This strong growth is supported by increased international connectivity and the use of smartphones in line with the availability of LTE networks being built out by network operators.

Many of these operators have an extensive international presence, encompassing a significant number of markets which facilitates the development and spread of technical expertise, m-commerce and roaming.

By 2020, about three-quarters of all mobile connections will be on 3G or LTE and thereafter the impetus will favour LTE as operators are able to make use of spectrum released from the switch to digital TV.

Overall forecasts suggest that mobile internet traffic across the region will increase 20-fold by the end of the decade and mobile data revenue in Africa is expected to double by 2019.

Tell me more about how you are trying to make your operations more sustainable and energy efficient?

Throughout emerging markets, the telecommunications industry faces two major energy challenges. First, there is heavy reliance on diesel consumption, which has significant logistical implications and, secondly, unreliable electricity grids to power the towers.  

We're investing heavily in innovative and alternative energy sources to reduce our diesel consumption across our portfolio. This includes investing over $500 million on new green energy power systems across our portfolio. As a result of this investment, we’re also able to seamlessly integrate all acquired towers into our portfolio, ensuring the tower uptime continues to match our industry standard of over 99 percent and connecting all tower sites to our state-of-the-art Network Operating Centres so we can effectively monitor them 24/7.

Currently, how many of your communications towers are powered by clean energy?

We’re currently heavily investing in R&D and rolling out various pilot projects throughout all our operations. We’re working on custom designed solutions for each tower site with best in class engineering systems.

How do you plan to improve this over the next ten years or so?

Over the next few years, we’ve resolved to continue reducing our carbon footprint by decreasing our diesel consumption throughout our portfolio, and becoming almost diesel neutral where possible, by using a combination of on- and off-grid solutions.

Alongside your use of Flexenclosure’s eSite, what other systems are you putting in place with regard to clean energy?

We’re working with the world’s best power system suppliers and engineering firms throughout our five countries of operation. Most of these projects are currently still in pilot mode so we’re not able to disclose those names just yet but will do so when the time is right.

Would you say Africa is your largest focus presently or are there equally ambitious projects going on in other parts of the world?

Currently IHS is concentrated on consolidating and driving value from our existing operations. In terms of what’s next, we’re always assessing interesting opportunities worldwide. 

What is your ultimate objective? Where would you like to be in 2025?

Our mission is to be the global leading provider of telecommunications infrastructure to mobile network operators enabling the widest, most efficient and reliable networks worldwide.

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