Light Reading

The Telecom Firm That Lives Dangerously

Robert Clark
News Analysis
Robert Clark
2/28/2014
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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

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SachinEE
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SachinEE,
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/6/2014 | 1:15:19 PM
Re: The Telecom Firm That Lives Dangerously
danielcawrey, you are right about the costs but these costs are neutralized by some factors. Literal absence of competition leaves the daring service provider with monopoly over the charges of services. People are always willing to pay heftily for new things. What could be more fantastic than carrying a mobile around where there are no mobile phones as yet?
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/3/2014 | 4:30:06 AM
Re: Strange coincidence....
@daniel: That's a fair point, but even bad guys need a communications system too.  In many of these unstable environments, the biggest threat to a tower or other physical network may not come from dissidents but rather an oppressive government (and they have frequently have ways of blocking communications beyond outright physical destruction).
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/3/2014 | 4:27:05 AM
Re: not so dangerous?
@R Clark: Indeed, mobile communications seem to have developed more quickly and in greater abundance in countries lacking good "wire" infrastructure (e.g., circuit-switched networks, broadband, etc.).

I remember when I visited South Korea nearly 15 years ago, when cell phones were still a luxury in the US.  In South Korea, EVERYONE had *at least one* cell phone -- and I do mean everyone.  Even babies had real cell phones hanging around their necks on lanyards.

(Our group even witnessed a lost little girl in busy downtown Seoul get reunited with her mother when the mother called the girl on her cell phone.)
DanJones
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DanJones,
User Rank: Blogger
3/1/2014 | 5:37:42 PM
Re: Strange coincidence....
I've seen push towards solar power, no idea how far that's gone yet though...
DanJones
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DanJones,
User Rank: Blogger
3/1/2014 | 5:36:31 PM
Re: not so dangerous?
Particularly if you can use the phone as a substitute for a checking account, this is true in the US as well, but it has taken off in Africa and beyond.
danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/1/2014 | 3:26:31 PM
Re: Strange coincidence....
It would seem to me that given the energy and security required for towers in these areas that mobile service would be ridiculously expensive. Is that not the case? 

We are always hearing about how the smartphone in the hands of billions of people will change the world. But the fact that in many places getting data to those smartphones could be expensive and dangerous, it may not be as easy as some think. 
R Clark
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R Clark,
User Rank: Blogger
3/1/2014 | 4:53:13 AM
Re: not so dangerous?
The underlying story is what an amazingly robust product the mobile phone is. In Somalia in the 2000s there was no govt, no police and no schools but several mobile networks.  Even in a marginal economy with no social or physical infrastructructure there's a business case.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/28/2014 | 11:18:59 PM
not so dangerous?
Hey, if you have the capital and risk tolerance to handle it, unstable places like Iraq and South Sudan (esp. South Sudan) are gold mines in the waiting!  Not only do you likely face a lack of competition, but you can work towards creating stability as people rely on your services.
MarkC73
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MarkC73,
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/28/2014 | 6:54:19 PM
Re: Strange coincidence....
I agree, sometimes its all about perspective.
Steve Saunders
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Steve Saunders,
User Rank: Blogger
2/28/2014 | 4:08:38 PM
Re: Strange coincidence....
Amazing story - great original reporting. Fantastic to see this kind of global coverage on LR again.
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