Data is the oil of the digital economy. Like crude over the last couple of centuries, information is what drives the new economy forward. The similarities don't stop there because, like oil, data relies on infrastructure to transform it from its raw form into something more useful. However, instead of pipelines, processing plants, and storage terminals, data needs fiber optic cables, telecommunication towers, and data centers to keep the digital economy humming along.
That leaves a massive opportunity for companies to build out and operate data infrastructure. One of the many focused on this space is Brookfield Infrastructure (NYSE:BIP)(NYSE:BIPC), which has been pouring capital into acquiring and developing data infrastructure in recent years. It expects that trend to accelerate and last for many decades, given the opportunity it sees ahead for data infrastructure.
A century-long investment opportunity
The oil industry spent more than a century building out the infrastructure needed to support the economy's ever-growing thirst for crude. Brookfield sees a similar megatrend investment opportunity in data as the economy consumes an increasing amount of digital information.
Overall, two factors drive the need for more infrastructure investments in the near-term. First, the existing data infrastructure is aging. As a result, it's struggling to keep up with growing global technology demand growth. Second, the telecom industry needs to replace existing networks with faster and leaner fiber infrastructure and prepare to support the roll-out of 5G technology. These upgrades will require an estimated $1 trillion of global capital investments over the next five years alone. Meanwhile, the longer-term investment opportunity is equally vast, likely to power steady growth for infrastructure companies.
Accelerating its investment strategy
Given the enormousness of the data infrastructure market opportunity, Brookfield plans to invest an increasing amount of capital into the sector over the next several years. It has been methodically building out a data infrastructure platform in recent years. Brookfield launched into this sector in late 2014 when it participated in a consortium to acquire a 50% stake in a French communication tower infrastructure business, investing $500 million into that $2.2 billion deal. Meanwhile, over the past three years, the company has invested about 20% of its $1.5 billion average annual growth capital spending (or roughly $300 million per year) into building its data infrastructure platform.
However, it has accelerated its investments in the sector this year, already spending half of its $1.7 billion growth investment on data infrastructure. The main drivers were a $150 million equity investment in a U.K. telecom business and a $600 million equity investment in an Indian telecom towers portfolio.
The company expects to continue allocating an outsized portion of its capital to expanding its data infrastructure operations over the next three to five years. In its view, it will increase its overall growth investment spending target to more than $2 billion per year. Meanwhile, it anticipates allocating 35% of that higher budget on data-related investments during that period, up from 20% of its lower investment rate during the previous three years.
Some of that shift is because many of its recent acquisitions included an embedded growth component. For example, there's growth potential at its Indian tower portfolio as it builds additional towers to support its current tenant and add new ones to existing towers. Meanwhile, in late 2018, the company partnered with REIT Digital Realty (NYSE:DLR) to acquire Ascenty, a data center business in Latin America. When they bought the company, it had eight data centers in Brazil in operation and 14 total when including those under construction. It now has 22 in operation or under construction and has expanded its reach into Chile and Mexico.
Meanwhile, the other driver of the company's accelerated investment in data will be additional acquisitions. Given the industry's need for capital, Brookfield will likely focus on acquiring data infrastructure companies that need access to funding for organic expansion projects or to make bolt-on acquisitions. For example, Brookfield tried to buy Cincinnati Bell (NYSE:CBB) earlier this year to accelerate the expansion of its fiber network. While a rival infrastructure fund outbid it for that company, there's no shortage of capital-starved data infrastructure companies out there, suggesting it should have plenty of opportunities to acquire other companies or business units.
An ultra-long-term investment opportunity
Because Brookfield Infrastructure believes we're still in the early innings of a data infrastructure investment megacycle, the company anticipates that it will have an increasing amount of compelling investment opportunities in the sector over the next several years, which is driving it to boost its spending target and allocation to the space. That bright outlook suggests that the company should have no problem continuing to generate outsized total returns for its investors, making it the ultimate buy-and-hold stock to create long-term wealth.