Etisalat invites bid for Africa tower ops - sources

UAE telecoms operator Etisalat has invited bidders for its telephone tower operations in Africa, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters on Wednesday.

Etisalat operates in about 10 African countries, including Egypt, Nigeria, Tanzania and Ivory Coast and owns about 4,500 towers on the continent.

The former state telecoms monopoly has mandated Standard Chartered to advise on the potential deal, the sources said.

Etisalat had originally planned to sell the towers in one lot.

"It was an all or nothing deal for about $500m - Etisalat received interest from about six or seven companies," one source familiar with the matter said.

"It would have been a cash deal, with a lease back to Etisalat of 15 to 20 years, but the process has stalled and my guess would be that's because it's very difficult to sell towers in more than one country at a time. It's not an easy process and to agree a single deal was over-ambitious."

Etisalat was not immediately available for comment.

The source said Nigeria and Tanzania, which both have large populations and low mobile penetration, would be among the top picks for specialist tower operators.

"A tower company wants countries where there are multiple operators that can be added as tenants," the source said.

"Etisalat seems to be pausing as it works out its next step and it may look to sell its towers in Tanzania separately first."

Tower sharing is common in Europe and the US and is increasingly prevalent in Africa, where shrinking margins and a tough operating environment blighted by power shortages has spurred telecoms operators to seek to share and reduce costs.

In December, American Tower Corp it launched its Uganda operations by entering a joint venture tower company with Africa's top mobile operator MTN Group.

"Africa has about 175,000 towers and most of these will go up for sale in the next few years - it's a huge opportunity," added the source.

Bahrain Telecommunications (Batelco) is eyeing a sale and lease back of its towers in Jordan, a source familiar with the matter said in December.

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