Media releases

The future value of mobile network operators by Douglas Craigie Stevenson – Cell C Chief Executive Officer

Monday, 15 November 2021

Network infrastructure isn’t a differentiator for customers

By Douglas Craigie Stevenson, Cell C CEO

5G is an inevitability, but unless we as an industry make dramatic changes to the traditional models of network rollout, it’s unlikely that it will make the impact we are hoping for.

Taking the reins of Cell C more than two years ago, the focus was on right-sizing and optimising the business with a clear focus on its future sustainability. The vision was for Cell C to become a successful business – run on sound operational principles and focused on creating customer value. To achieve this vision and similar to other global mobile telecommunications players, Cell C faced a cross-road – our industry requires continuous investment in costly infrastructure, which offers diminishing returns for operators.

The capital investment in LTE and LTE-Advanced will be small in comparison to the investments required to cover the same footprint with 5G technology.

Africa Analysis in its research report The Evolving Telecoms Value Chain forecasts that in South Africa the 5G population network coverage would reach 60% by 2030. To achieve this coverage, a single mobile operator would need to deploy 18 000 5G base stations to reach 60% population coverage (2.5GHz).

Using a historical average capex per base station of R2-64 million, (MTN and Vodacom average shows that a single mobile operator would need to invest R47.5 billion) five mobile operators and the WOAN would need a cumulative capex investment of R285 billion.

The report also makes the point that there is a telecoms revenue-capex disconnect. Digital services companies create and will continue to create the demand for digital services. However, it is the network operators that need to enable the delivery of these services. This shift from a network to service-based consumption and billing world has and will continue to lead to a disconnect between network operator revenue and capex. This disconnect will grow larger as the digital services demand grows.

This is because intuitively, the revenue of today for telecoms providers is going to be the cost of sale of tomorrow.

I strongly believe there needs to be an evolution of the “network” and infrastructure-based competition if telecoms providers are going to give customers a 5G service at an affordable price. By removing the burden of individual infrastructure investment by each provider and allowing the Megabyte (MB) and the Minute to become the tools of provision rather than the product, providers are more likely to find value and still give customers what they want.

However, this requires a significant change in the mindset of telecoms providers, particularly those who believe infrastructure investment is the only differentiator.

My view is that network infrastructure isn’t a differentiator for customers; what they want is the exceptional services the infrastructure makes possible. Cell C’s future relationship with our customers will rest on the pillars of innovation in service provision. Customers want ease of use – for example, a bundled deal that includes home automation, security provision and tracking services where data is just the channel. Alone, data is a grudge purchase - it has little value other than to give

customers access to the services they want. By turning data or voice into valued added services customers use every day, providers can regain consumers’ trust.

Mature markets internationally have allowed for the cross-utilisation of active networks to enhance economic efficiency of their capital expenditure – capacity is more fully utilised in comparison.

If our strategy were to play catch up to Vodacom and MTN networks, we would have to invest R1.5 billion per year for 18 years – conservatively estimated at R27 billion – based on the assumption that we would be able to build 400 new cellular sites per year, and assuming competitors did not build any new towers. This investment in network infrastructure would be impossible to maintain.

Based on technology advances it is possible for network operators to avoid duplication in RAN (Radio Access Network) infrastructure. Cell C is pioneering this approach in South Africa by becoming a wholesale buyer and aggregator of network capacity. While for us, the strategy may have been borne out of the need to survive, by doing so, we can offer a quality network equivalent to our bigger competitors.

The network model which Cell C is pursuing will significantly reduce network expenses, along with the need for capital expenditure, allowing the company to be profitable, accessing best-in-class infrastructure, benefitting from scale and being able to pass on value to customers. We will continue to use our own spectrum and manage the customer experience. We plan to leverage our telco platform to innovate on products and services and improve digital inclusion.

As network providers, the value we create must be based on what customers want and their anticipated needs of tomorrow instead of what we as an industry are offering today.

Back to media releases