TowerXchange speaks to Richard Cane, SVP International Operations, SBA Communications following the firm's major acquisition in Brazil
TowerXchange: You joined SBA Communications as SVP International Operations in late 2019. What has been the focus of your work since then, what achievements are you most proud of?
Richard Cane, SVP International Operations, SBA Communications: I joined SBA just before the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and had plans to visit all of our international markets during the first half of 2020. Unfortunately, I only made it to Canada and Brazil before the world stopped. I was literally scheduled to fly to Guatemala the week that flights shut down. I started traveling again earlier this year and have since hit all but one of our offices in Central and South America.
Pandemic aside, I’ve been provided with a great orientation to the company and business. I first started leading our international operations staff, then expanded my responsibilities to cover Canada, then Brazil and finally all of the Americas outside the U.S. and Caribbean markets.
First and foremost, I am proud to be part of such a talented team here at SBA Communications. I know that sounds patronizing, coming from an executive of the company, but we really have a special culture here and across all our international markets. I am also proud of hiring our first female country manager, up in Canada, and of supporting various efforts to improve our operations and business results.
TowerXchange: Prior to joining SBA Communications, you had a broad and varied career in the telecoms sector. How does your experience inform your decision-making in the current position?
Richard Cane, SVP International Operations, SBA Communications: I have had the good fortune to work for several different types of telecommunications companies, including domestic and international mobile network operators, narrowband and broadband wireline operators, and OEM equipment manufacturers. I have also benefited from working in a wide variety of roles and organizations in these companies, including engineering, site development, field operations, technology development, product management, business planning, finance, sales, IT and senior management. I truly believe that broad experience provides the best foundation for decision-making because you’ve seen things from different perspectives.
As a result of my experience, I have tremendous respect for people at all levels of our company and business, and always try to get “grounded” with broad-based input and feedback before making any judgement or decision. As you can imagine, that can sometimes be challenging across so many countries but I believe it is vitally important in such a dynamic industry.
The tower industry is certainly different from my prior operator-oriented career experience, but I feel my telecom background helps me to empathize with the needs and challenges of our customers.
TowerXchange: SBA Communications operates globally, but within the CALA region, which markets offer the most opportunities for growth, and which are proving to be more challenging?
Richard Cane, SVP International Operations, SBA Communications: It’s hard to categorize different countries in CALA because each market has its own opportunities and challenges - it’s more a function of understanding the local situation in the market and among the operators, and then properly managing the local situation to create value.
Despite the economic and political uncertainty in many of these markets, demand for communications services, increased service availability, greater bandwidth and improved service quality, exists everywhere.
We’ve obviously seen consolidation among the mobile network operators in several markets, and this presents business challenges as it sometimes creates redundant leases and it reduces demand for collocation. In these cases, we typically work with our customers to find other ways to deliver them value.
In Brazil, our largest market in the region, the operators there are busy digesting the mobile assets they purchased from Oi, and we are helping them to optimize their combined networks.
TowerXchange: Some towercos are diversifying away from towers, how does SBA Communications assess the relative attractiveness of different digital assets to invest in?
Richard Cane, SVP International Operations, SBA Communications: SBA is first and foremost a tower company and we intend to continue growing our core business in both existing and new markets. That said, we are always looking for ways to provide our customers with more value that complements our core business.
For example, we’re providing operators with enclosures, back-up batteries, and alternative energy solutions. We’ve installed solar panels at many sites to provide savings for operators by reducing their grid energy consumption at the site.
In addition, we’re providing turnkey C-RAN solutions that expand the coverage and capacity of our existing tower sites using remotely connected poles and other street hardware.
We’ve created a new line of business, SBA Edge, that is entirely focused on data processing and mobile edge computing applications. We recently purchased a data center in the center of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and are leveraging the expertise and functions of that center to support edge installations at our macro cell sites in the market. We plan to expand this to all our markets in the region.
TowerXchange: How is SBA Communications' approach evolving across the CALA markets in light of 5G rollouts and increasing coverage in rural areas?
Richard Cane, SVP International Operations, SBA Communications: We are working with our customers to understand their additional equipment needs to support 5G technology and new spectrum. In some markets, we are supporting technology trials on our network. In other markets, we are upgrading the structural integrity of our towers to support larger and heavier active antennas.
We are also working with new operators like Internet Para Todos in Peru to provide specially-designed, low-cost infrastructure to serve rural areas.
TowerXchange: How does SBA Communications view the formation of América Móvil’s and Millicom’s towercos; do you see the competitive environment changing in the mid- and long-term?
Richard Cane, SVP International Operations, SBA Communications: Over the years, a number of mobile network operators have created affiliated towercos or towerco subsidiaries to realize some separate valuation of their infrastructure while retaining control of their assets. These companies are often challenged because they don’t devote the same amount of resources to the tower business, or are perceived by other operators as biased towards their affiliated operators. It’s not easy changing your mindset from a mobile operator to a towerco – I know that from first-hand experience. As a result, many of these companies are eventually acquired by independent tower companies. That said, we’ll see how America Movil’s Sitios business and Millicom’s tower business fares. We continue to offer our sites and services to the mobile network operators associated with these companies.
Up until recently, competition for new sites had been increasing across all markets, as the value of towers has attracted all sorts of new entrants. Many of these new entrants are short-term owners, eventually seeking to maximize the return on their investment by selling their tower portfolio to a larger, more established towerco or to a financial investor. Economic and market conditions, along with an increasing cost of capital, have somewhat dampened this trend. We are seeing more competition for low-cost pole sites, often located in the public right-of-way.
TowerXchange: What is your position on shared infrastructure and the benefit it brings to the CALA markets?
Richard Cane, SVP International Operations, SBA Communications: I always emphasize the importance of our towerco business fundamentals, especially the value of shared infrastructure. At a time when every country is seeking to improve the quality, speed and coverage of broadband services, it simply doesn’t make sense to build redundant infrastructure. SBA is a huge advocate of infrastructure sharing and works with international, federal, provincial and local governmental authorities and with local communities to promote the orderly and efficient deployment of communications infrastructure and to prevent the unnecessary proliferation of redundant towers.
We’re proud to help operators to spread their limited capital investment further, and thereby promote digital services for all.