How to improve the performance of telecom towers

Delmec and Helios Towers share a decade of continuous improvement in tower management

Read this article to learn:

  • Who are Delmec and why do Helios Towers work with them?
  • How a close partnership between towerco and engineering consultancy benefit both parties
  • The role for data in understanding towers
  • How to manage the changing site typologies found in telecom networks today
  • How to manage contractors on site to ensure safe and efficient work

After a decade of building its African operations to over 8,000 sites, a 2.0x tenancy ratio and a 54% EBITDA margin, the next year should see Helios Towers move into the Middle East with an acquisition in Oman and an expansion into four new African markets. Helios Towers has been able to improve the performance of its towers and confidently acquire new towers because of its long-standing partnership with their engineering partners Delmec. In this interview, TowerXchange speaks with Delmec’s Head of Engineering & Innovation Damien Kelly and Allan Fairbairn, the Director of Operations and Technology for Helios Towers, about how the relationship works and the benefits for how Helios Towers’ sites are managed.

TowerXchange: Delmec and Helios Towers have been collaborating for over a decade, what have been the key milestones in the partnership?

Damien Kelly, Head of Engineering & Innovation, Delmec and Allan Fairbairn, Director Operations and Technology, Helios Towers:

Delmec has been providing technical support to Helios Towers across Africa since 2011, with the addition of the newly established markets, allowing us to grow together into the future. Our initial engagement began in Ghana providing basic survey and design functions and as Helios Towers has grown, Delmec has followed and supported the needs across first DRC, to then all of Helios Towers’ markets, more recently Oman and Senegal. Helios Towers wanted to adopt a new strategy to maximise their assets and increase their data across the portfolio.

From the initial engagement back in 2011 for Ghana, there have been a number of key milestones over the past 10 years. The ethos of “One team, one business” has always been at the forefront of how we work together. As Delmec’s initial engagement was to provide support in Ghana, this soon led to Delmec supporting Helios Towers in the rest of their opcos which led to the establishment of a managed service agreement which provided a standard across the Audit and Design processes. Delmec’s support to Helios was advanced in 2015/16 with the evolution of this full solutions model or “MSA”. The basic services of survey and design were linked with a newly established Consultation function providing high level technical support. This elevated the partnership to allow Delmec to provide key strategic guidance to Helios Towers. Our aim for the MSA project was focused on increasing revenue per site, reducing spend per site and developing cost saving initiatives for Helios.

This MSA, which is one of the most significant milestones in the partnership, aimed to build a database of accurate site data, both passive and active. The first 3 years of the MSA focused on gathering data to build a full database of the entire Helios network. The results of this venture, can be segregated to four key areas;

Sustainability – The project allowed Delmec to improve the overall condition of the portfolio to reduce risk.

Cost – A number of cost saving initiatives were incorporated into Helios’ internal process resulting in major reductions in strengthening costs and focused spending on their portfolio.

Revenue – Delmec focused on maximizing the Helios portfolio to allow their customers to get online quicker.

Data – Delmec created a full portfolio of data on all structures to ensure all revenue is accounted for and innovative cost saving solutions can be adopted.

TowerXchange: How has the industry approach to site management changed over the years? To what degree have decisions become data-driven?

Damien Kelly, Head of Engineering & Innovation, Delmec and Allan Fairbairn, Director Operations and Technology, Helios Towers:

Data has become more prominent, whether it’s the increase restrictions or more visibility on what companies can achieve with the data, there in an increased focus to effectively manage this data. From a Delmec point of view, we’ve seen an increase in requests from clients to create processes around managing data and how they can benefit from accurate data on site. This is something that both Delmec and Helios Towers have always focused on, since the introduction of the MSA. In terms of providing solutions, it had a positive impact. We always try to provide the most efficient solution for Helios Towers, which can vary depending on location, long term requirements, ability, et cetera. Obviously, we tend to rely on data to develop these solutions and when this data doesn’t exist, or isn’t accurate, it hampers us slightly. So, when we have accurate data, this gives us a wide range to work from.

With the recent Helios Towers acquisitions, our first protocol is to visit the full portfolio to gather data and “on board” the portfolio into the Helios Towers network. By undertaking this process, we will not only benefit from the mass amount of data on the new portfolio but will allow the MSA Consultation Team to utilise the data to provide these “clever solutions”. There’s an element of “verifying” certain points while on site. We work with an approach to try eliminating site visits as much as possible, to verify vital information such as equipment while teams are attending sites for maintenance, installations, et cetera. Aside from the standard information, we’ve seen a major push to capture power information but also data that will benefit future applications. Whether it’s the commercial viability of the site for upgrades, but also the future potential of incorporating renewable energies on the sites or position it for newer technologies.

TowerXchange: What comes next in digitising assets and transforming analysis into action? 

Damien Kelly, Head of Engineering & Innovation, Delmec and Allan Fairbairn, Director Operations and Technology, Helios Towers:

There’s no doubt that the assets need to be digitised as much as possible, although the focus should be on usable data. For the recently acquired portfolios, the aims are very much based around on boarding the new portfolios into the network and ensuring we have the same level of data across the board. When this is achieved, the Delmec teams can focus on optimising those assets with the methods developed over the past 10 years. In addition to the correct data, a lot of towercos need to ensure that their systems can be integrated. At Delmec, we have our TiMS system which is being constantly developed to integrate into our day-to-day activities, however we need to ensure that it can link with other systems. Fortunately, this has been the case for Helios. There are three key areas that we have focused on and will continue to focus on in the future to ensure Helios’ portfolio is being optimised;

Structural Data – An area that built the foundation of the MSA and a factor that is the core of a towerco’s business. We aimed to have a full structural view of the Helios Towers’ portfolios, both current and future as knowing this can impact co-lo decisions. Management of this data is key, as over time with RFIs and equipment installations, this data can quickly become out of date. We rely on collaboration from contractors, as their frequent site visits will provide key updated information on active equipment.

Quality Assurance Feedback – As Delmec and Helios Towers have built a robust governance system across the network, the data from these quality assurance (QA) inspections are key. With the “first time right” focus, the aim is to ensure that any contractor carrying out works on a Helios Towers site is equipped with the correct equipment, training and methodologies. The data from these inspections must be clear and precise as it will aid the root cause analysis (RCA) process.

Active Equipment Register – Coupling this with the structural aspect, the core revenue stream of a towerco lays with who and what is on the tower. Any discrepancy here can lead to an incorrect view of the towers’ capacity and potential unclaimed revenue. Delmec are constantly reviewing different methods of ensuring this is up to date, digitising this data is crucial as it aids reconciliation.

Future trends will focus on enhancing automation as much as possible, with machine learning being introduced to drive analytics and predictive actions. This can only occur once towercos can deploy these digital systems and introduce a robust data management process. As this grows, more and more data points will be introduced which will create forward facing projections. At this point, actions will then become proactive rather than reactive.

TowerXchange: Is the proliferation of new site typologies – whether rural or urban – creating challenges for monitoring and managing a network?

Damien Kelly, Head of Engineering & Innovation, Delmec and Allan Fairbairn, Director Operations and Technology, Helios Towers:

From a commercial perspective, there are commonalities between greenfields, rooftops, buildings, et cetera as the typical site valuation and future potential still apply. Valuing these sites can be complex in certain areas as there may be a lack of benchmarks. This obviously isn’t an issue for macro sites, for example. For MNO divestments, the factors used in valuing the sites revolve around the site’s structural capacity, opex costs and demand in that area for coverage. The more obscure site types can complicate the valuation, and on the operational side, a lack of experience can hamper both towercos and their partners. Delmec’s experience in the European market where the majority of cell sites are of alternative site typologies is a key advantage in our support to Helios towers and their new acquisitions or site builds.

TowerXchange: Many towercos are looking at moving into active telecom infrastructure in addition to passive; what are the key challenges of making this leap?

Damien Kelly, Head of Engineering & Innovation, Delmec and Allan Fairbairn, Director Operations and Technology, Helios Towers:

The traditional towerco business models are changing at different paces. There’s no doubt that towercos need to review other methods of gaining that competitive advantage. Developments in technologies have brought both risks and challenges to the standard grass and steel model, but also opportunity for towercos.

For a towerco to look at alternative models, for example, managing active infrastructure, the model then changes to a netco. In this case, the towercos would be responsible for more than just the passive infrastructure and required to manage a full network. With RANsharing becoming more common, the demand for towercos to provide a function to allow this “plug and play” facility will increase and act as the next step from the previous grass and steel operating model. The migration to a similar network as a service (NaaS) model will allow MNOs to operate a network without owning, building or maintain infrastructure.

Naturally, towercos will need to develop to support this new model which will add complexity to their business. From a Delmec perspective, towercos will need to partner will suppliers that can provide support in this area as the “tower” will become a smaller factor in their supply chain.

TowerXchange: Lots of the work of towercos is performed by contractors; how has working with contractors changes now towercos have so much more data about maintenance, safety and quality?

Damien Kelly, Head of Engineering & Innovation, Delmec and Allan Fairbairn, Director Operations and Technology, Helios Towers:

A primary element of the Delmec/Helios Towers engagement was to ensure that all works on the network, whether it is new builds or rectifications, are carried out safely and correctly. This entails a good working relationship with all three key stakeholders: Helios Towers, Delmec and local contractors.

All works on site are QA checked by Delmec, which provides Helios Towers with a stamp of approval that these works are to the correct standard. When issues arise on site, a collaborative approach is used to pinpoint the issues and effectively work through a re-education process to ensure that process is followed. For us to achieve these improvements, we relied heavily on data from site. For each site, Delmec follow a strict list of requirements checking all aspects of the works completed. If the event arises where a site fails QA, this data is then reviewed by the Consultation Team who will carry out an RCA on the failures, which can then lead to re-education in the form of additional training, documentation or a review of the process to mitigate the issue from reoccurring. There is an environment common to both Helios Towers and Delmec that allows for this culture of continuous improvement, which leads to a right first time approach. Recently, we have developed innovative ways of carrying out these checks and capturing the detail.

Over the past year, at Delmec, we have focused on further developments to the TiMS App. We’ve linked a lot of our processes to our TiMS App which allows us to respond more quickly and has increased the accuracy of the data we capture. The past year has made us a lot more innovative, with the full team focused on bringing new ideas to the table. We found that we could rely on our app to communicate with our teams, or where we needed to work with trusted local partners, we could guide the teams in real-time while on site. Where our usual teams couldn’t travel, this element made sure we can guide these local partners to ensure the exact detail is captured.

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