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Retelit owner takes 80% stake in Irish broadband company

Winnie Wutte Asterion.jpg

The company behind Ireland’s National Broadband Plan wants to build on the new investment by setting up a centre of excellence in the country, and then offering its expertise across Europe.

Asterion, a Madrid infrastructure investor, has bought an 80% stake in National Broadband Ireland (NBI) from Oak Hill Advisors, Twin Point Capital and some minority shareholders.

Winnie Wutte (pictured), a founding partner at Asterion Industrial Partners, said NBI is “one of the most ambitious fibre rollouts in the world, providing access to rural, long term and futureproofed connectivity in Ireland”.

She helped set up Asterion in 2018, after 10 years at the European arm of US investment company Kohlberg Kravis Robert (KKR). Asterion last year acquired Italian telco Retelit and last month invested in a rural fibre company in Spain.

David McCourt, chairman of NBI and chairman and CEO of the major remaining investor, Granahan McCourt Capital, told Capacity this morning: “We wanted long-term investors that were committed to Ireland, and people who understand telecom. We deserve a long-term shareholder who is committed to Ireland.”

Now, he said, he wants to offer the NBI expertise to other fibre projects across Europe. “We want to figure out how to productise the things we do – an open access wholesale network.”

He also wants to build a broadband centre of excellence in Ireland, details of which will emerge soon.

NBI provides wholesale services to three of the main operators in Ireland, Comcast’s Sky, Liberty Global’s Virgin Media, and Vodafone. “But there are 52 phone companies on our network,” McCourt told Capacity.

Wutte agrees with the company’s centre of excellence plan: “We are … committed to the opportunity of creating a centre of excellence in Ireland in partnership with Granahan McCourt to open up tremendous long-term opportunities in the Irish market and further cement its leadership position in the provision of a gigabit society.”

McCourt told Capacity that NBI is now building at the rate of 8,000-10,000 homes passed per month. The company has a 25-year mandate from the Irish government to build wholesale broadband infrastructure 559,000 premises in rural areas, and over 1.1 million people. The mandate includes any new homes built in the area over the next 25 years.

Construction is running behind schedule, largely because of the Covid pandemic, “which meant we weren’t allowed to bring in the main contractors from the UK, we couldn’t put two people into a van at once, and we couldn’t put them in an Airbnb”.

Nevertheless, NBI has 199,303 premises under construction or constructed, of which 63,662 are now passed by the fibre.

McCourt said: “At NBI, we’re incredibly proud to be bringing world-leading broadband infrastructure to over 1.1 million citizens across rural Ireland, and in doing so, help Ireland be years ahead of the EU’s target of a gigabit society by 2030.”

McCourt has been a serial telecoms entrepreneur since 1982, when he created McCourt Cable Systems, which became the largest privately-owned designer and builder of cable systems in the US.

Since then he’s headed businesses that have invested in TV stations and built or run phone networks and cable TV networks on both sides of the Atlantic.

His big move into Ireland came in 2013 when his investment firm acquired Enet, which manages the nationwide metropolitan area networks (MANs) on behalf of the Irish government, as well as a majority shareholding in Dublin-based AirSpeed Telecom, an enterprise communications provider in Ireland.

McCourt’s Granahan McCourt Capital will continue to own 6% of NBI. Tetrad, another existing shareholder, will keep its 13%, with NBI management owning the 1% balance.

The existing management team, led by CEO Peter Hendrick, will remain.

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