Even though merger and acquisitions (M&A) in South Africa were down at least 50% in deal value last year compared with other emerging markets, the telecom sector has seen much activity in the last year, which has also spilled into 2009. A veritable wave of consolidation & a drive towards convergence seems to be the way forward for major players such as Vodacom, Telkom SA & MTN Group.
The largest deal in South Africa was Vodafones (NYSE – VOD) acquisition of a further 15% of Vodacom for R22,5bn ($2.3Bn), bringing control along with atotal holding of 65%, Telkom as part of the deal will divest the remaining 35% to shareholders. Analysts had feared that Vodafone had paid a premium for this stake, however value can be seen in the continued push for consolidation & a genuine effort to move towards converged services. In late December it was announced that the mobile carrier had acquired African network and satellite services firm Gateway Communications for $700 million. The Gateway transaction includes Gateway’s core carrier and business network units, which provide satellite, business and interconnect services to African and multinational companies in 40 countries, but not its broadcasting division.
“As mobile phone penetration levels increase in South Africa, we are actively repositioning Vodacom as a total communications provider with new avenues for growth,” Pieter Uys, Vodacom’s chief executive said in a statement.
Vodacom Group will be listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 2009, once the Vodafone deal to buy an additional stake is completed. As part of the deal, the Vodacom identity will remain visible on the African continent and it will be the exclusive investment vehicle through which Vodafone will make acquisitions in sub-Saharan Africa, excluding Ghana and Kenya where the group has existing presence via stakes in Ghana Telecom & Safaricom respectively.
Meanwhile, pan-African player MTN Group have not been caught napping, having recently snapped up Verizon’s African businesses, which it is buying to add muscle to its data division. MTN which is Africa’s biggest cell phone operator by subscribers, is buying a 69.38 percent stake in Verizon South Africa, a unit of U.S.-based Verizon Communciations, for an undisclosed amount to help it better compete with rivals such as Dimension Data & Internet Solutions in the corporate communications market.Verizon Business South Africa provides telecommunications to corporate customers in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Kenya. Also, in response to Vodafone’s move on Vodacom, MTN has bolstered its SA operations by acquiring the remaining 59% of iTalk Cellular that it did not own, iTalk is an MTN exclusive distributor, with over 100 retail outlets across South Africa
“These acquisitions are in line with our strategic vision and will add value to our business,” said MTN SA MD, Tim Lowry. “Through these deals we are enhancing our value proposition, building capacity and broadening our reach to enhance our product and service offerings to customers and clients. The i-Talk Cellular acquisition will strengthen our distribution across South Africa,” Lowry said.
In a counterpose, fixed line operator Telkom (NYSE – TKG) has begun the roll out of a national 3G W-CDMA network. Telkom will initially focus on providing fixed voice and fixed-mobile data and, in the near future, nomadic voice services. This is in part a play to enter into competition with the two mobile players, but also is a side effect of the disastrous state of SA’s copper based telecoms infrastructure. Telkom has also swung into action by spending $63m to acquire MWeb Africa and 75% of MWeb Namibia to help it become a pan-African voice and data supplier.
“Our revenues have been under significant pressure from declining voice services due to competition and further impacted by the effects of copper cable theft. Three years ago, we announced we are investing in next generation network (NGN) based technologies to provide new generation customer services and products. It isn’t about a single network but using various NGN technologies, such as W-CDMA, to provide customer-focused services”, explains September.
Network upstart NeoTel has been making decisive inroads into Telkom’s fixed line business since its launch in 2006, Tata Communications backed NeoTel provides converged services in the fields of basic voice and data services, high-speed internet (as well as true broadband access), virtual private networks, network management and hosting services for both corporate & retail customers. One area where it has been very succesful is in providing alternative backbone services to Telkom via its wholly owned transit network. Recently it has announced an agreement with MTN to co-build a national fiber optic network, which will break the stranglehold that Telkom has had on the sector.
Last but not least, Kuwaiti based Zain (formerly MTC) is promising major pan-African expansion with a short-term goal of launching in at least three more countries this year. Since few countries are issuing fresh licences, that will mostly come by acquiring smaller players. Zain Africa’s CEO, Chris Gabriel, predicts that consolidation among Africa’s 100-plus cellular networks will be so intense that only three to five will survive. Smaller players will come under pressure to be absorbed by those behemoths if they offer telecoms or technology-related services.
With all this activity, the South African telco sector is contracting with regards to opportunity & growth, which will, in my opinion spur Vodaone/Vodacom, MTN, Telkom & Zain along with France Telecom/Orange, Orascom & Oger into a set piece which is remiscent of Thomas Pakenhams excellent book Scramble for Africa. Interesting times indeed.