ATC denies cutting off Surfline, Busy

ATC denies cutting off Surfline, Busy
ATC CEO, Yahaya Yunus

The biggest independent tower company (towerco) in the country, ATC Ghana, has said that it did not cut off Surfline and Busy Ghana but had to discontinue pre-financing electricity bills and fuel cost for their equipment, because the two have for several years refused to meet their financial obligations to the company.

Surfline and Busy Ghana have for several months been out of service, leaving their customers stranded with very little or no explanation as to the actual cause of the outage. Surfline in particular kept telling customers they were facing a technical challenge that will be fixed soon, but to date the service has not been restored.

Meanwhile, industry regulator the National Communications Authority (NCA) is currently in talks with Surfline on the way forward, including delinking SIM cards from Surfline and removing same from the Central SIM Register.

Techfocus24 gathered that the main reason Surfline and Busy Ghana are off air is because ATC Ghana, which is the main tower company running co-location towers in Ghana, had cut them off for non-payment of hosting fees and utility bills.

But in response to a questionnaire from Techfocus24, the company stated categorically that: “ATC Ghana has not cut off Surfline and Busy Ghana but has discontinued pre-financing and funding the supply of electrical power and fuel to their equipment”.

The company explained that all the equipment of Surfline and Busy Ghana remain on the premises of ATC Ghana towers, except that the supply of power and fuel to keep them running has been stopped due to non-payment of bills for many years.

According to them, the discontinuation followed Surfline and Busy Internet’s persistent refusal to pay ATC Ghana for the electricity services – despite ATC Ghana having already paid ECG, purchased diesel and incurred cost in maintaining the generators to provide services for the two companies.

Regarding Surfline specifically, the company said, following protracted discussions spanning over 7 years of Surfline’s refusal to pay agreed fees due ATC Ghana, including the fee of its power consumption, ATC Ghana at the end of January 2023 discontinued the pre-financing of power supply to Surfline’s equipment on ATC Ghana’s sites. “During this period, the many concessions, discounts and frequently renegotiated payment plans in support of Surfline were consistently breached,” it added.

With regard to Busy Internet, ATC Ghana said in September 2022 it was compelled to discontinue pre-financing supply of electrical power to Busy Internet’s equipment for the same reasons. “ATC Ghana fully funds the purchase of electricity from ECG, and diesel to power generators that provide back-up power to Busy Internet. However, Busy Internet only pays for these services intermittently – in less than the agreed amounts or most often none at all. This is despite the many concessions and discounts made in support of Busy Internet’s business,” it said.

The company said it has a commitment to the telecommunications industry and must ensure that it is in a position to continue supporting the entire industry to deliver world-class wireless connectivity for the wider Ghanaian society, adding: “It is therefore important to ensure that ATC Ghana’s business continues to be sustainable, by plugging the holes which cause financial losses to the business and not put the wider industry in jeopardy”.

AirtelTigo and Vodafone

Meanwhile, AirtelTigo is said to owe a much bigger debt to ATC Ghana than Surfline and Busy Ghana owes, while the debt of Vodafone Ghana is also said to be piling up hard and fast – yet the two telcos continue to receive services from ATC Ghana.

But the company explained that: “The case of AirtelTigo is different from Surfline and Busy Internet based on where we are in discussions with the relevant parties. As you know, the government of Ghana completed the takeover of 100 percent shares of AirtelTigo in 2021 including customers, assets and liabilities. ATC Ghana is in ongoing conversations with the GoG with respect to this issue”.

With regard to Vodafone, which has now been acquired by the Telecel Group, the company said: “We are working with Vodafone Ghana for them to meet their financial obligations to ATC Ghana.”

Other allegations denied

ATC Ghana had also previously been fingered for allegedly abusing its dominance as the leading co-location towers market shareholder to short-change smaller operators in favour of big boys in the telecoms market, particularly MTN. The company has employed staff of MTN from which it purchased 1,800 towers, and has signed a lease-back agreement with MTN – on the back of which it is allegedly short-changing smaller operators.

It was also alleged that the company had a 300 minimum towers policy as part of its co-location arrangement, which compelled any operator wanting to be part to sign onto at least 300 towers. Indeed, high tower fees is another charge directed at ATC Ghana, and Glo Ghana in particular complained of “ridiculously high” tower fees from ATC Ghana, for which reason it opted out of the co-location arrangement.

But the company said its pricing is in line with industry standards, saying that it does not charge each operator the same fees. The fee charged to each customer, according to ATC Ghana, is determined by different service factors – including service without limitation to their equipment loading or tower space occupied, power consumed, volumes committed and duration of contract.

“The fee for each customer is thus different based on the different contributing factors, with prices in line with industry standards,” it said.

The company also flatly denied having any 300 minimum towers policy – saying that “ATC Ghana does not have a 300 minimum tower policy for its customers or any potential customers”.

It explained that its business model is co-location, which allows operators in the telecommunications industry to reduce their capital expenditure and operational cost by sharing infrastructure; adding that a 300 minimum tower policy would go against the multi-tenant business model and defeat the basis of the company’s operational and business model by being a disincentive to potential customers.

The company said any tower lease agreement ATC Ghana negotiates with a customer – based on the customer’s objectives and requirements, is in line with the network rollout/expansion plans of that customer: adding that “No two agreements are the same in terms of the number of co-locations from a customer, and ATC Ghana does not have a minimum number policy for any customer’s co-locations.”

With regard to the number of towers it controls, it said the figure is about 59 percent and not over 80 percent of the market as alleged; adding that it also manages and maintains some towers on behalf of other companies, but does not own those towers.

It also explained that ATC Ghana employees – whether former employees of MTN, Vodafone or any other customer – work in the best interests of ATC Ghana and not for the benefit of any operator, as they are required to do by law and by the company’s business conduct policies; which in many cases go beyond the law.

Regarding the lease-back agreements and how they impact other operators, ATC Ghana said it puts integrity first and therefore treats all its customers equally and fairly; adding that there is no favourable treatment for any operator based on ATC’s acquisition of towers from them.

It explained further that ATC Ghana entered the telecommunications industry in Ghana through the acquisition of approximately 1,800 towers from MTN Ghana in a sale/lease-back agreement, which is a standard approach adopted by most tower companies to enter a market and is not peculiar to Ghana or even Africa; adding that lease-back agreements are not specific to the telecom sector and do not mean that any customer is given preferred treatment over another.

SMP calls

Calls have also been made for ATC Ghana to be declared a significant market power (SMP) in the towerco space, so that appropriate measures will be applied in the interest of smaller operators like Surfline and Busy Ghana – which are now out of service for their indebtedness while relatively bigger players like Vodafone and AirtelTigo, who are also indebted to ATC Ghana, are still operational.

To that call, ATC Ghana said: “The designation of a SMP sits with the regulator and not the operator. While ATC Ghana may have a bigger market share, ATC Ghana does not abuse its role in pricing and way of carrying out business. We fully comply with the rules set out by the regulator”.

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