HIGH-POWERED executives working at the ‘Cheesegrater’ – the tallest building in the City of London – have a Bellshill-based telecoms business to thank for their mobile phone signal.
“For the people working in the building, it means they’ll get access to 4G and infrastructure that’s available for all the mobile network operators to use,” explains Scott Coates, chief executive of Wireless Infrastructure Group (WIG).
“Modern building materials also block the signal from outside, so without our infrastructure, there’d be literally no signal in the building.”
The business, which employs 50 staff at Strathclyde Business Park and recently raised £75 million from investment firm 3i Infrastructure – valuing the company at £300m – has installed similar ‘small cell’ wireless networks at Glasgow’s Braehead shopping centre, Manchester’s Trafford Centre and the new Center Parcs village at Woburn Forest near Bedford. WIG is also working with Aberdeen City Council to boost wireless coverage in the city centre by installing antennae to lampposts.
“Because we’re doing more and more with our handsets, if you’re in a building or a busy city street, there’s a market for a whole new layer of infrastructure to meet the challenge of delivering that data capacity,” Mr Coates explains. “The UK needs up to 1m small cells delivered over the next ten years, and that’s a huge infrastructure challenge.”
While the challenge in city centres and big buildings is capacity, the issue in rural areas is coverage. This is the company’s number one priority.
“Rural is our key market,” Mr Coates says. “We want to build more towers in rural areas. Over 50 per cent of our investment has already been in rural. We’re working on a number of new tower builds in rural Scotland right now.”
At an average height of 30 metres, WIG’s telecoms towers are nearly double the height of the typical tower owned by the mobile phone networks and can offer three to four times better connectivity, Mr Coates says.
WIG stresses that is not linked to any network operator and that its masts and networks can be accessed by any mobile operator. Mr Coates points out that more than 100 different networks use its towers, while those owned by mobile phone operators may not be shared at all with other networks. They key issue is whether connectivity in the UK is being held back by narrow ownership of the wires, cables and masts that deliver telecoms services.
“Less than one in 100 towers owned by mobile operators are shared with smaller networks,” he says. “Whereas all the mobile networks use our masts. We also support about 120 small networks including the emergency services. We bought some towers last year from a UK mobile operator. They had had a tower in Ardrossan harbour for ten years with one mobile operator on it. Following our acquisition, we’ve upgraded it and it’s now supporting the links that provide wifi to CalMac ferries.”
The company’s third priority is the UK’s rail network. “How do we dependably deliver signal to the tunnels, to the stations and along the tracks?” Mr Coates asks. “If you look at the top ten subways in the world, London is the only one that doesn’t have a mobile network.”
Mr Coates was born in Staffordshire but grew up in Dunfermline in Fife, where his father ran a Marconi production line for military radar. After early ambitions of a career in the RAF, he studied economics, finance and accountancy at Strathclyde University and qualified as an accountant with Ernst & Young in Glasgow in 1996.
Working on mergers and acquisitions, helping small businesses raise venture capital and advising management buyouts started to get his entrepreneurial juices flowing.
“At any given time, I always had an idea, whether that was to try and open up five-a-side football centres or start a dotcom. There was always something at the back of my mind. I guess the way I scratched that itch was ultimately by moving into private equity, which is what I did in 2000. I moved to work for Royal Bank of Scotland’s private equity fund – that was really interesting. I was there for seven years and we had 100 portfolio companies.”
Mr Coates sat on the board of nine or ten different businesses, including Antler Luggage and car seat maker, Britax. In 2006, the bank made a small investment in a Leicestershire consultancy that advised utility companies on how to maximise their infrastructure. Mr Coates joined as chief executive and the business was relaunched as an infrastructure owner and operator.
“It was pretty clear back then that there was a better model for owning and operating infrastructure in the telecoms industry,” Mr Coates said. “We could see that model taking off in the US, and that was what gave us confidence [in the future].”
Wood Creek Capital Management, a Connecticut-based asset investor, backed the team’s buyout of the business and remains an investor alongside 3i Infrastructure. With Bank of Scotland and Axa as banking partners, Mr Coates says the business now has the ‘critical mass and appetite’ to invest £1 billion in telecoms infrastructure across its priority areas.
“Scale is important in our industry,” he says. “It’s been a slow, steady process to get to critical mass. The next chapter is to execute more quickly and build the business up. We want to be a serious player in the industry. That’s why we’ve done this deal with 3i, to give us the firepower to do that.”