Telstra, Australia’s leading telecom provider has revealed its plans to split into 3 different units which would operate under the umbrella of the Telstra Group. The restructuring – scheduled to be completed by 2021 – is said to be the telecom giant’s biggest restructuring since 1997. The primary reason behind the move appears to be to spin off its infrastructure assets to realise their full value as competition intensifies.
In 2018, the Telstra2022 plan defined a four-pillar strategy to improve business, network superiority, cost improvements and respond to market dynamics for the next three years including the establishment of InfraCo and Global Business Services. Telstra established its standalone infrastructure unit, Telstra InfraCo to hold its fixed network assets. As a part of its recent announcement, Telstra’s infrastructure business InfraCo will split into two units – InfraCo Fixed which will run and manage Telstra’s physical infrastructure assets including data centres, ducts, fibres, undersea cables, and exchanges; and InfraCo Towers which will own and operate Telstra’s mobile towers and infrastructure. Meanwhile, the third unit ServeCo will focus on products and services for the consumer and retail businesses. The company is also investigating ways to push into renewable energy, with plans to exploit its renewable energy investments to re-sell cheaper energy to its customers.
This restructure, should it go ahead as described, is likely to be the biggest legacy that the current CEO, Andy Penn, leaves on the business. Recent CEOs have left a significant legacy on Telstra. Sol Trujillo – who admittedly had a rocky relationship with the Australian Government, which culminated in the conception of the National Broadband Network (NBN) – drove significant changes in Telstra; rationalising mobile and fixed network investments, driving focus back into the business and building an economically rational business. David Thodey was the great peacemaker, driving pride back into the Telstra staff and customers; he turned Telstra into one of the most customer-centric businesses in Australia in his time, laying the foundation for its ongoing success. Andy Penn has made some significant changes to Telstra, further reducing the cost base to turn it into a more competitive business – but until now, he has not significantly transformed the core business.
This changes now. Telstra ServeCo will build on the customer-obsessed culture of the Telstra sales and service business – one that consistently scores above market average for NPS in both the business/enterprise and the consumer markets. One can even envision a day in the future where ServeCo will be in a position to sell the best network solutions and services in Australia – some of which might not even be owned or controlled by InfraCo. It already does that with the NBN – this may extend to reselling other telecom services too.
InfraCo Fixed will build on the strong engineering legacy that Telstra still has – and will give it the chance to flourish – and not be dictated by customer buying cycles. Ideally investment cycles can be separated from direct customer revenue, and the company can rebuild the network lead that it has traditionally experienced, but which has been eroded over the past 3-4 years (in mobile by Optus and in fixed telecoms by NBN).
InfraCo Towers should be well-positioned to become the core tower provider in Australia. This business makes the most sense to spin off in the medium term. The buildout of multiple – nearly identical – tower networks by the three major 4/5G providers is wasteful and inefficient. 5G in particular, requires a very different tower footprint than 3G or 4G – so having a single provider of shared tower infrastructure will reduce costs for all telecom providers while creating a healthy business for shareholders. As an independent provider of towers, InfraCo Towers should always be the most affordable option – Optus, Telstra and Vodafone would be foolish to attempt to replicate and manage their own similar tower infrastructure.
The NBN-Telstra Dynamics
While Telstra dominates the Australian telecommunications market, their business is also under pressure due to the state-owned NBN. In 2019, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher ruled out selling the NBN to Telstra. However, the new structure has likely been designed with this in mind – with perhaps the option to spin off the InfraCo Fixed unit and merge this with a privatised NBN or perhaps to even the separation of the business units enough to satisfy a future government of the merits of selling NBN to Telstra and merging it with the InfraCo Fixed unit. The question surely needs to be asked what the difference is between a private business with a monopoly on home broadband access and Telstra having that monopoly?
This restructure will help Telstra build a telco for the next ten years. One where agility will be core to its success. The challenge – like with any big transformation – will be to take the employees and the customers on that journey. Employees need to believe that this structure is the right one and that their skills are required and relevant. Customers need to see benefits from this restructure too – ideally, they will see that the service promise of Telstra is delivered in the network and capabilities. Hopefully, they will see a stronger Telstra that can continue to drive the levels of innovation and investment that digitally savvy customers demand.