The Telecom Firm That Lives Dangerously
It's hard to think of more unappealing business destinations than Afghanistan, Iraq, and South Sudan -- but it's the sheer difficulty of operating in such locations that attracts Frontier Tower Solutions.
Dubai-based Frontier has built a business operating cellular towers in some of the world's most dangerous locations. It began as a unit of Afghan Wireless Communications Company (AWCC), and is now owned directly by AWCC's Florida-based parent, Telephone Systems International.
One part of the business is the engineering side of any network buildout; RF planning, network design, site selection, and so on. But its real expertise is in keeping a mobile network in operational mode no matter what the conditions, a critical role in areas where effective communications can save lives.
"A lot of it -- 85% -- has to do with power. The rest of it is security," says chief operating officer Christopher Lundh. He describes the company's business as "operating where there is no grid, keeping them supplied with fuel and running 24/7."
To minimize the truck rolls, Frontier uses solar as much as possible, and about 80% of its sites in Africa are solar-powered. But solar doesn't work so well in Afghanistan, because of the dirty air as well as the northern latitudes.
"There's essentially no power grid, and everyone relies on diesel," says Lundh.
He says the key is finding trustworthy partners. In Afghanistan, Frontier works with a company that supplies fuel in all 49 provinces. In Africa its solar kit partner is, ironically, a diesel engine manufacturer that is also a big supporter of solar.
"Among the principals of Frontier, we have quite a bit of experience in these countries and in terms of contacts among telcos and the Internet. In my case, I have been living and working in Africa on and off for the last 30 years," Lundh says.
"In the time I was in Kenya, I probably trusted five people. That's true in basically all the places where we work."
In Burundi, he hired a person he had previously worked with in Rwanda, and who was trilingual -- English, French, and local languages. "These are the sorts of things I look for."
On the upside, Frontier's business is only rarely troubled by regulators. "In the countries where we operate, there is little to no regulatory supervision," Lundh points out. Virtually the only regulatory issue is visual pollution from the presence of the towers.
Incredibly, in the new country of South Sudan, the two carriers actually operate under licenses issued by the government of The Republic of the Sudan, from which South Sudan separated. That's the least of Frontier's issues in South Sudan, though. Conflict has flared up again in the fledgling nation, making normal operations impossible and leaving fuel air-drops the only way to keep some towers powered.
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading