Sep 21, 2015

Ex-Absa CEO in home fibre venture

Former Absa CEO Steve Booysen, who now heads up MetroFibre Networx — in which he is a significant investor — has outlined plans by the broadband telecommunications specialist to become the latest player to target South Africa’s fast-growing fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) market.

And the expansion plans include going to the market soon to raise R500m in private equity from new investors to allow it to expand its fibre footprint dramatically. It hopes to open the funding round in November and to close it in March 2016, and to bring new shareholders on board in the process.

Booysen, who has taken the reins from founding Metrofibe Networx CEO Malcolm Kirby, tells TechCentral that the company intends rolling out open-access FTTH in suburbs across northern Johannesburg.

It offers symmetrical fibre broadband (identical upload and download speeds) and does not impose long-term contracts on its subscribers, which it believes differentiates it from other FTTH players in South Africa.

“By December 2018, we want 50 000 live FTTH connections,” says Booysen. The company also wants 2 000 “live points” on its network, including locations such as office parks.

Focus areas for FTTH include the Johannesburg suburbs of Lonehill, Edenburg (Rivonia), Sunninghill, Barbeque Downs, Douglasdale and Kyalami, as well as the Sandton central business district and surrounding areas. It is also building infrastructure in the east and south of Pretoria. Some neighbourhoods are built entirely at MetroFibre Networx’s risk, while it seeks minimum commitments from homeowners in other areas. “The moment you move to more isolated suburbs, then we will seek minimum commitments,” he says.

When MetroFibre Networx started business, its plan was to deploy infrastructure only. However, since taking the reins, Booysen has expanded its focus to providing Internet services on top of the fibre, too. This is to ensure it can drive demand from consumers, he says.

“If we go into a suburb, we can’t wait for one day when an Internet service provider decides they will sell connections there.”

However, he emphasises that the network will always be open access, meaning other service providers can sell fibre access to homeowners in areas where it’s deployed infrastructure. “We want the take-up. And if a customer is dissatisfied with a service provider, they can change.”

The company is utilising a mix of build options in deploying fibre networks through neighbourhoods and into homes. In some instances, it makes use of aerial cabling (typically in suburbs with large properties), while in other areas it uses micro-trenching machines along roads or even traditional labour-intensive trenching mechanisms to get the job done.

Despite his history in the banking sector, Booysen says he “likes” the telecoms industry, which he describes as “dynamic” and “fast-changing”. He says he enjoys leading a company of MetroFibre’s size. “Our size means we have agility and can make decisions quickly.”

Booysen, who serves on a range of listed companies’ boards – Steinhoff, Clover, Senwes, Vukile Properties and Efficient Group – says that in the modern world one doesn’t have to spend one’s entire career working for the same company or even in the same industry. “Those days are gone,” he declares.

Booysen left Absa in February 2009 after five years at the helm of the bank. He was replaced by Maria Ramos. 

This article first appeared on TechCentral and is republished with permission