TowerXchange catches up with the CEO of Australia’s newest towerco
Simon Fennessy joins Australia's newest towerco with plans for development
Waveconn is a new Australian towerco, established in 2022 through an acquisition of Stilmark and the TPG/Vodafone tower and rooftop portfolio by OMERS’. The company now owns over 1,400 sites and has ambitious growth plans. From day one, Waveconn has been positioning itself as Australia’s leading independent digital infrastructure business. In November 2022, Simon Fennessy joined Waveconn as CEO, succeeding Russell Stanners. TowerXchange caught up with Simon Fennessy about the company’s next stage of business growth and development.
TowerXchange: Could you introduce yourself and your company to TowerXchange readers?
Simon Fennessy, Chief Executive Officer, Waveconn: Waveconn was formed in August 2022, when OMERS Infrastructure purchased the TPG/Vodafone tower and rooftop assets, along with another Australian tower company called Stilmark. I joined the business in November of that same year. I came to Waveconn with 20 years of telco experience both in Australia and Europe. My background is mainly in services, asset management, operations, product development and management. My remit is to help the new entity develop and deliver on its next stage of growth. And that means helping our customers leverage the existing towers and get access to more 5G infrastructure at low cost and low risk. We are currently coming to the end of the transition and setting up period and I am really excited about our prospects within the industry.
TowerXchange: What are your current operational plans and priorities at Waveconn?
Simon Fennessy, Chief Executive Officer, Waveconn: There are five key themes that we are focusing on for the year ahead. The first one is to deliver on the service promise that we have with our existing clients - mobile network operators. That means supporting their 5G upgrade programmes in a timely manner, giving them access to the sites as and when required, and having the right information available at the right time to facilitate that. The second key theme is delivering on the obligations to the new business that we've won, building and commissioning new tower assets or rooftops. We are making sure that when we procure and design these assets, they are future-proof in terms of colocation potential. The third priority for us at the moment has to do with the relocation of some of the assets that we’ve purchased from Vodafone and TPG. The need for this typically arises when the developer or the landlord requires such a relocation. It is a rather sophisticated engagement that can involve us setting up a temporary site or moving the site, and then relocating it back to a new building or a structure. Early engagement and solid programme management skills are essential to manage such network requirements of our customers.
We are also focusing on improving the ways in which we manage the relationships with the MNOs, the community, the landowners, the contractors and the utility providers, in order to make all subsequent network operation and new infrastructure deployment run as smoothly and easily as possible. We are increasingly working with the government at a local and state level, and a federal or national level. And we're increasingly seeing an appetite and a willingness from these layers of government to work with infrastructure providers like us. It is in the national interest to help develop cost-effective infrastructure that can be used to serve multiple carriers and offer consumers a choice.
And the last thing, which is my area of interest, is systematically exploring growth options around the core business of servicing MNOs, growing the portfolio, managing transitions within the portfolio and keeping all of our stakeholders happy. We are constantly exploring adjacencies and opportunities to grow.
TowerXchange: How are you managing the current transition period following the merger that resulted in the formation of Waveconn?
Simon Fennessy, Chief Executive Officer, Waveconn: We are looking at the systems, the data and the processes that are currently in place, and at the practical ways in which we could integrate our assets into a single portfolio. We are looking at how to break down these into a finance stream, a property stream, an operations and maintenance stream, a colocation stream, a systems and data stream, so that we can manage each of those as an independent modules in a staged manner. We are on track to complete this transition process and have all the systems in place by our internal deadlines, while delivering the continuity of service to our existing customers.
In terms of the use of innovative technologies, in 2022 at TowerXchange Meetup Asia in Singapore we met a number of exhibitors and have explored with them ways in which we could enhance our data, our systems and our process in efficient and cost-effective manner. As a result, we’ve now launched some AI, machine learning and automation capabilities.
An example of this would be a recent deployment of digital locks that we've done with a company called iLOQ. What is great about this is that it removes the need for physical keys and creates traceability and transparency across our entire ecosystem. This is all about creating an ecosystem that will help our contractors be more informed, effective and efficient.
And for that reason, we've partnered with another company, Sightsee in the digital twin space. We are using drones and the associated AI to intelligently identify site maintenance that needs to be executed and progressed. With this technology, we can determine the urgency at which any maintenance work needs to happen and get a lot of intelligence well before the skilled personnel and tech turns up on site. That means that we can better schedule the work, our teams can be better prepared for what they'll encounter on site and elevate their productivity. That gives a better outcome all round for us as an asset owner and for our contractors as service providers.
We are creating a win-win ecosystem by leveraging AI along with automation. When we invest in data, a system or a process, these are the three capabilities that are aiming to develop and mature. You can have a great AI system, but not have people understand how to optimally support it. You need clarity on the quality of your data and how your data systems interact with the operational model. The focus has to always be on getting superior outcomes, so it’s never only about the tech, but about how the tech interacts with the people. Digital transformation is a journey, and we're well advanced into it and very excited about improvements going forward.
TowerXchange: How is Waveconn preparing for an increased demand for 5G connection in terms of tower builds and new tenancies?
Simon Fennessy, Chief Executive Officer, Waveconn: There's a bit of a coverage scramble at present, where operators want to be the first to achieve certain coverage outcomes for 5G, but network densification will soon become the next objective. Up until now, operators have been focused on macro site solutions, built-to-suit rooftops or towers. But we anticipate that they will now begin to explore small cells and use those to complement other asset types. With 5G, we are looking at such new technology as the mmWave, and currently there are some challenges around the cost effectiveness of such equipment. But as more operators globally turn to this technology and the industry scales up, the equipment will become more affordable. And with that, in developed markets such as Australia, we could expect a proliferation of such asset deployments. Small cells will become essential for 5G expansion.
If you are building a macro site, at least in the Australian context, you could spend 12 to 18 months on securing a site, and then six months on actually building it. So, site acquisition, from identifying suitable sites to completing the permitting process, becomes crucial when it comes to delivering 5G coverage in a timely manner. Also, upgrading sites speedily is crucial. Most operators want to add 5G equipment without necessarily decommission their 4G equipment, which means an increase in densification for both rooftops and towers. And as a towerco, you have to be ready for that.
Backhaul is another interesting issue. Fibre is necessary to support these new sites, so an interesting area for us to explore over time is whether, as a towerco, we want to play a role in managing this asset class for the operators, and do so more effectively.
And the last point, which I am sure is true for all markets, is engagement with the government in terms of regulatory compliance. In Australia at present, many state governments are exploring options for engaging with the indigenous and native title interest groups. We want to be involved in such a dialogue and make sure that this process is effective and efficient. We want to sensitise stakeholders in the government to what our positive role is as infrastructure providers, and the role that towercos play collectively.
TowerXchange: What is the company’s strategy in terms of expanding your offerings beyond traditional tower services and how do you need to change as a business to provide them?
Simon Fennessy, Chief Executive Officer, Waveconn: Operators today are focused on macro site deployment. We think that the next opportunity that will mature first will be small cells, followed closely by in-building coverage solutions. These and all other assets will need to be upgraded to be compatible with the rest of the 5G network, fibre assets as another opportunity. With this, leveraging one asset across multiple customers comes into play. Edge compute is definitely on the horizon, but much further out, perhaps in the next five years or so. Currently, we have a distributed network architecture in place, in future we see assets being aggregated to support multiple points of presence, as centralised networks become more widespread, options for edge comes in. It's just a question of market maturity and readiness. We’re watching this space.
TowerXchange: How do you see the Australian telecom and towerco market developing in the next decade and what will be Waveconn’s place in it?
Simon Fennessy, Chief Executive Officer, Waveconn: In the next five to 10 years, it is probably going to mirror the path that we’ve just talked through - the evolution out of macros and into small cells, IBS, fibre and ultimately edge compute. I think the industry is at a really interesting point where the operators, at least in this market, have all signed up to offload their non-core assets, that is, their passive infrastructure. And that could progressively expand into those adjacencies that I talked about.
A towerco will become a “communications infrastructure company”, a supporter of an aggregated digital ecosystem. And interestingly, we've just seen in the last few weeks the low orbit satellite solutions by Starlink positioned in this market. I see that as a really good complement to the mobile infrastructure, particularly in a large country like Australia, which has vast areas with sparse and small populations. It will be interesting to see how that evolves and how the LEO satellite providers, the MNOs and infrastructure players like us collaborate. The shape and nature of this interaction is still somewhat undefined, but we see a tremendous potential. As we explore that potential, we need to invest in our people, in our systems, in our structured datasets to help feed and nurture this ecosystem. I'm very optimistic about the industry and about the Australian market over the next five to 10 years.
Waveconn and other leading wireless infrastructure companies in the APAC region will be speaking at the 10th annual TowerXchange Meetup Asia on 28-29 November 2023 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.