Posted by Matt Walker on October 18, 2017
October’s seen a few mergers already, including Airtel-TTSL, a tower sale by Zain and the long-rumored Sprint-T-Mobile transaction (confirmed yesterday). Some interesting deals came out of 3Q17 too, especially in infrastructure markets.
63 M&A transactions announced, including OTT/cloud deals
The communications services sector saw 63 merger and acquisition (M&A) transactions announced in 3Q17. These deals accounted for a total $17.4B in deal value. Infrastructure targets accounted for 56% of deal value across 13 deals. Crown Castle’s $7.1B purchase of Lightower was the biggest by far, and exemplifies the quarter’s focus on towers, data centers, and fiber networks.
Other infrastructure deals announced last quarter include:
Several small deals involving fiber optic and related assets were announced without valuation: FirstLight Fiber’s acquisition of 186 Communications; Neural Path-Infinity Fiber; Ufinet-IFX Networks; and EQT Infrastructure-Spirit Communications. Also, South Africa’s Dimension Data Holdings decided to sell its fiber & wireless business to Vulatel; Dimension’s view on the network assets is that they are no longer core to its “value proposition”.
Fixed-mobile-integrated services: 28 deals totaling a modest $5.2B
3Q17 also saw 28 deals targeting fixed and/or mobile service operations: 18 fixed, 7 mobile, and 3 for integrated (fixed & mobile) assets. There were no very large (>$10B) telco deals announced in 3Q17, though several earlier ones are still pending (including AT&T-Time Warner and Vodafone-Idea Cellular).
Two sizable deals in 3Q17 were international in scope: Vodacom South Africa’s $2.6B purchase of a 35% stake in Kenya’s Safaricom, and Omantel’s $846M acquisition of a 10% stake in Kuwait-based Zain. Most other significant deals were domestic in nature, including:
Lowering network & selling costs (relative to size) are common dominators across most transactions. Some transactions markedly improve competitiveness through more scale or better access to a customer segment; for instance, Hutchison Drei bought Tele2’s Austria operation to jump into a strong #2 overall position in the market, behind America Movil’s Telekom Austria.
OTT/Cloud network operators also buying companies
Notably, Alphabet/Google made five notable acquisitions in 3Q17, Facebook 3, and Alibaba 2. Their targets are spread across a range of sectors, in line with their business scope. Lots of action centered around Artificial Intelligence in 3Q17, something OTT/cloud operators anticipate having a role in their networks. Alphabet acquired two firms in this space: Bangalore-based Halli Labs, and Belarus-based AIMatter. Baidu acquired Seattle-based Kitt.ai, and Facebook bought conversational AI startup Ozlo.
Infrastructure demand rising, or unstable?
With all the infrastructure deal activity in 3Q17, some wonder if this indicates rising demand for basic network assets. Does it suggest a strong growth outlook for the “neutral network operators” (NNOs) focused on neutral operations of towers, data centers and fiber networks?
The sector is growing, to be sure, especially member companies like Equinix with aggressive M&A strategies. Private equity (PE) is driving much of the deal activity in this sector. That was the case with 3Q17’s biggest deal: Crown Castle bought Lightower from PE owners including Berkshire Partners and Pamlico Capital. This quarter, there’s an even more audacious deal underway in the sector, with a PE consortium looking into an $11B Indian cell tower deal. That is motivated, at least in part, by high debt among many Indian operators & tower companies.
Which brings us back to the market outlook. In telecom, PE firms tend to buy, reorganize, and sell assets – they’re generally not in it for the (very) long-haul. Publicly traded NNOs like Crown Castle provide exit opportunities for the PE investors – as it did for Lightower last quarter. The fact that several PE firms are raising big infrastructure funds now is a positive for telecom dealmaking. Telecom network operators seem almost certain to continue slimming down their asset base in light of weak top-line growth. PE firms will surely be around to pick up some assets when the price is right.