The Glorified Wireless Carrier Lease Renegotiation Bonanza

Wireless carriers are pulling out all the stops to renegotiate their ground and collocation leases in one of the most extensive efforts seen to date.

In the last few months, we have observed more concentrated efforts by individual wireless carriers to issue RFPs and to enter agreements with build-to-suit tower companies to build towers adjacent to existing public and private tower company owned towers. These efforts followed very public statements of discontent with the public tower companies leasing practices. In short, the wireless carrier commits to moving from an existing tower to a new tower built by a private tower company on financial terms and conditions much more attractive to the wireless carrier. They "rip" their equipment off the old tower and "replace" it on the new tower otherwise known as "rip-n-replace." We think further clarity on how the Rip-n-Replace efforts fit into broader efforts to renegotiate will be helpful.

 

HISTORICAL EFFORTS BY CARRIERS TO RENEGOTIATE

By no means are these the first attempts by wireless carriers to renegotiate leases, nor are they the largest. As far back as 2002, AT&T was trying to renegotiate the terms of its collocation, rooftop, and ground leases. There was a flurry of renegotiation activity between 2007 and 2012 after which the wireless carriers started to realize that they were damaging their relationships with the landowners and tower owners who they had to continue to contact for modification and lease extension requests. These landowners and tower owners disliked the aggressive car salesman like tactics of third party "optimizers" for the wireless carriers, so much so that they would often refuse to talk to the wireless carrier or would ask for exorbitant rent increases for changes that weren't allowed under the lease.

 

TODAY'S "NEW" RENEGOTIATION EFFORTS

Today's efforts seem more concentrated and refined but are increasing significantly in the first quarter of 2017. We suspect that the wireless industry has learned a good deal (as have their lease optimization vendors like Md7 and BlackDot Wireless) about what works, what does not work, and what they legally can and cannot say in contract renegotiations. We also believe that the commoditization of the wireless sector has caused the wireless carriers to focus on reducing operating expenses as they find it is harder to increase revenue now that wireless penetration (number of devices vs. number of possible subscribers) has exceeded 100%.

Based upon the inquiries we receive daily from our landowner and tower owner clients, each of the renegotiation efforts tend to make the following requests:

  • Reduce Rent
  • Reduce Escalation in New and Renewed Leases
  • Extend the Term of the Lease
  • Increased Expansion Rights at Fixed or No Additional Rent
  • Revision to Permitted Use Language
  • Incorporate Right of First Refusal Language

These renegotiation requests almost always accompany the implication of termination. We say "implication" because the wireless carriers found out the hard way that the direct threat of termination may be considered "anticipatory breach" of the underlying contract which is a quick way to end up in court as the carriers found out previously. They come with catchy acronyms like "TOSS" or suggest that rejection of the proposed terms will then necessitate an "Alternative Site Review." They include articles and news stories that purport to show that T-Mobile and Sprint must merge. For example, here is a quote from an email a client of ours sent us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below please see a sample letter below from AT&T. Note the careful use of AT&T and Md7 addresses in the document – which is intended to disguise to the landowner where the letter originated.

 

The obvious next question is "If these efforts have been occurring since 2002, why should we care that they are doing them again today?" The answer is that we believe that these endeavors are indicative of both the increasing competitiveness in wireless today and that they predict precisely what the carriers are most concerned with as it pertains to their leases.

 

CARRIER BY CARRIER EFFORTS AND OBSERVATIONS

We do have additional insight based upon the priorities to which each carrier places on various clauses in their renegotiation efforts. We further believe that the scale of the renegotiation efforts by each carrier is indicative of their future concerns.

AT&T: By far the most aggressive in 2017 in attempting to renegotiate their leases. Based upon our landowner and small to mid-size tower client inquiries, AT&T is using multiple outside vendors to renegotiate their agreements. These vendors are even going as far as having term sheets for new tower leases signed with landowners on adjacent properties next to our client's tower or rooftop sites as a means of encouraging our client to renegotiate. These efforts extend from small landowners with single sites to tower companies with hundreds of sites. AT&T seems significantly more focused on procuring unlimited expansion rights and revisions to the permitted use language than other carriers in their renegotiation efforts.

Our checks indicate that AT&T seems to be more active than other wireless carriers in considering alternative towers. Build to suit agreements being offered by AT&T have significant worse terms for the tower developer than the previous build to suit agreements.

Sprint: Sprint has been inactive altogether. We have seen very little activity from Sprint in renegotiating their leases or on anything else for that matter.

T-Mobile: T-Mobile is the most incongruous of the wireless carriers. On the one hand, they appear to be willing to spend more for new leases than other carriers, but on the other, they are using third parties to contact landowners and tower owners to suggest that landowners should renegotiate their terms before a possible merger with Sprint. (Note: They aren't saying they are merging with Sprint- but they attach newspaper articles that address the possibility of such a merger and let the tower owner or landowner come to their conclusion.)  T-Mobile is also emphasizing unlimited expansion rights and revision to the permitted use language in the lease.

Verizon: Verizon doesn't appear to be using outside vendors to renegotiate terms. Instead, they are focusing on addressing more favorable lease terms in their new proposed lease agreements and any contract extensions. Verizon's primary push is reducing escalation in their leases to 2% or less per annum.

 

IMPLICATIONS:

What is our take from all this? We believe that wireless carriers (especially AT&T and T-Mobile) are increasingly concerned with limitations in their leases that prevent them from expanding or increasing equipment. With a possible new spectrum coming from FirstNet and the Broadcast Incentive Auction, we anticipate that AT&T will need to expand or increase the amount of equipment they have at each site more than other wireless carriers. We further expect that T-Mobile will need to make modifications because of winning spectrum in the Broadcast Incentive Auction.

In some cases, we are advising tower owners or building owners to consider accepting revisions to their leases especially when there is a possibility that a new tower could be built or a new rooftop could be selected for "rip-n-replace" of carrier equipment from the current site. The key is knowing what the risk is to your specific location and whether there are other options. Historically, it may not have made sense to move, but with the new deals being entered with build to suit tower companies and the wireless carriers who are seeking rent concessions on high rent sites, there are increasingly more situations where it makes sense to move.

If you have concerns about a letter or proposal you have received, please don't hesitate to contact us. We will gladly review your situation, see if there is anything to be concerned with, and if so, make a fair and reasonable proposal to you for services. Your inquiry to us will be kept confidential, and there is no obligation to pay us anything until you sign a contract for services.

 

 

Are states going to opt-out of AT&T’s FirstNet?

Now that the Rivada court challenge appears to be resolved, many pundits and experts expect AT&T to be awarded the FirstNet contract.  Once the FirstNet contract is awarded to AT&T (only remaining qualified bidder), AT&T has 180 days to prepare state specific FirstNet plans.  States then have 90 days to decide to opt-in or out.   If they opt-out of FirstNet, states have the option of building their own public safety networks to FirstNet standards.  Some states have already issued RFPs and in one case, awarded the state public safety network to Rivada.  This does not mean that the states will opt-out- just that they are evaluating their options.  Should they choose to opt-out, they have 180 days to issue an RFP or provide FirstNet with a plan for review.  To the extent that a state opt-out, AT&T will not get spectrum or funds in that state.  

We prepared this map that represents the states that have issued, awarded, or announced that they plan to issue an RFP.

Map of states with RFPs for FirstNet state networks
states that may opt-out of the nationwide FirstNet

Verizon’s Unlimited Plan- Short Term Pain vs Long Term Gain

Don't misread Verizon's about-face on unlimited plans solely as a sign of network confidence.

Tickers: VZ, T, S, TMUS, AMT, CCI, SBAC, COMM, DY, ZAYO

 

Contrary to their previous explicit direction otherwise, Verizon announced on February 12th, 2017 that they would be offering an unlimited voice and data plan at rates slightly higher than comparable offerings from T-Mobile (TMUS) and Sprint (S). Not coincidentally, in its earnings call on Feb 14th, 2017, TMUS indicated that they were porting Verizon subscribers to TMUS at a 2.8:1 ratio to subscribers ported from TMUS to V. This plan is clearly slated to reduce the churn of postpaid customers from VZ to S and TMUS and we believe that it is a very compelling service offering.

 

Analysts were quick to choose sides: the first posited that this was a sign of VZ's confidence in their network upgrades and capacity, while the second group believes that the network will show signs of strain under the added capacity. We believe that both groups are partially correct and that infrastructure related entities are the ones that stand to gain the most.

 

Back in last January, we applauded VZ for their densification efforts in our note Verizon (VZ) positioning for a range of 5G futures. The premise was simple- Verizon's efforts to add fiber and small cells to their network give them a marked advantage over other wireless service providers in the race for 5G. That premise hasn't changed and further research since that note continues to suggest that VZ still has a 1-2-year first-mover advantage from a US wireless infrastructure perspective.

 

Street light small cell
Small Cell In Boston, MA
Nonetheless, it is our opinion that VZ's densification efforts, while industry setting, are not sufficiently complete to provide seamless and reliable service across all urban areas, especially in the near term. Verizon's densification is based on a three-prong approach: carrier aggregation, dark fiber, and rapid deployment of small cells. On the first prong, VZ has actively deployed 2 and 3 carrier aggregation across most of the nation. On the last two prongs, while they have been leading the market in both efforts, there still are areas where their efforts have been slowed due to factors outside their controls. Based on our on-the-ground level visibility, VZ has a hefty lead in dark fiber and small cells actively deployed or in development.

 

In our previous note, we suggested that the next 12 to 18 months will be tough for Verizon as the impact from their investments will take time to materialize. For urban markets where VZ has encountered delays due to local zoning or permitting for deployment of small cells, there will be a reduction in reliability and data speeds. These issues will be more pronounced in markets where Verizon is relying upon two carrier aggregation.

 

Fortunately for VZ, these issues are surmountable and addressable, but it will take some time to rectify them. Expect to see an acceleration of densification in specific troublesome markets. Verizon will need to rely more on outside fiber and small cell providers like CCI and ZAYO. TowerCos (AMT, CCI, SBAC) should also experience continued and possibly accelerated macrocell modification activity and possibly new macrocell deployment from VZ and TMUS in their efforts to meet the pending needs of video downloads (remember that video accounted for 60% of mobile data use in 2016 and VZ and TMUS now include zero-rated HD video in their unlimited plans). Lastly, we would not be surprised to see T extend their unlimited plans beyond DirecTV subscribers, thereby further increasing densification.  (Editor's note- subsuquent to this being written, T did extend its unlimited plans beyond DirecTV subscribers.)

 

Risks to this note: The perception of VZ network superiority declines at a faster rate than expected, causing subscribers to question whether they should spend the additional money on VZ's unlimited plans before VZ's network investments reverse those issues. VZ could reverse their strategy of using outside fiber and vendors in order to control their fate by increasing CapEx towards the development of owned dark fiber assets, thereby reducing ZAYO and CCI opportunities.

 

(Author's note: This research note was published first on 2/20/17. If you are interested in gaining access to our research on a timelier basis or have a discussion on this note or other wireless industry topics, please contact us.)

 

 

Small Cells Per State in United States

Map showing small cells per state across US
Map showing the distribution of small cells in US based upon 100,000 total

To show the impact of 100,000 small cells being deployed in the US over the next few years, we looked at total population per state and created this map which assumes that small cell deployment will follow population.   In other words, a state's relative population is used as a proxy for small cell need in this map.   In reality, there are many more factors which will influence the number of small cells in each state.

These include:  

  1. Population density
  2. Difficulty of procuring permits for macrocells
  3. Spectrum shortfalls in specific markets
  4. Competitive Pressure between Carriers
  5. Topography

Thus, this map is only intended as a rough estimate of small cells to be deployed by state.  Where it gets interesting is when you assume that the actual number of small cells could be 1,000,000.  Previous FCC Chair Tom Wheeler indicated in a 2016 speech that the number of small cells deployed "may reach into the millions".   Multiply the numbers in the map by 10 to see what we mean.  The state of California alone could see 120,000 small cells with most in urban and suburban areas.  That is a lot of small cells. 

 

Everest Infrastructure Partners: The Phoenix of Tristar Investors?

Illustration of Phoenix Rising from AshesHISTORY OF TRISTAR INVESTORS

Back in 2008-2013, a company called Tristar Investors was attempting to acquire ground leases under American Tower Corporation (AMT) and Crown Castle (CCI) cell towers. They had some success acquiring the leases using a unique acquisition model where they would "buy out" the tower ground lease by paying the landowner an additional annual or monthly payment above and beyond their current rent through the expiration of the cell tower lease. Tristar would then offer the landowner 50% of any revenue from the operation of the tower after the expiration of the lease. The marketing pitch? At expiration, Tristar assumes ownership of the tower and the landowner becomes a "partner" in the revenue generated on the tower. This was an effective pitch to landowners, and our best guess is that Tristar acquired 300-500 leases under valuable multi-carrier towers.   

In 2013, Tristar settled litigation with American Tower and after that, they shut down. We surmise that Tristar agreed to non-compete and non-solicitation language in their agreements that barred them from purchasing leases from under American Tower. We also believe that Tristar executives previously agreed to language with Crown Castle that provided for similar restrictions on acquiring Crown Castle leases.  

THE RISE OF EVEREST INFRASTRUCTURE PARTNERS

Flash forward to 2017 and it appears that these non-compete/non-solicitation agreements have expired, because a landlord of ours with a multi-carrier American Tower Corporation tower received a purchase offer from a company named Everest Infrastructure Partners that looks suspiciously like previous offers from Tristar Investors. Upon further review of the signatory and the agent who contacted our property owner, it appears that someone has gotten the old Tristar team together and is now attempting to acquire leases under the Everest Infrastructure Partners name. Both the agent and signatory list previous positions with Tristar in their LinkedIn profiles .  

Here is what the offer from Everest looks like: 

Everest Infrastructure Partners, Inc. (“Everest”) is pleased to present to you (“Owner”) this offer letter (“Offer”) for Everest to acquire an easement to the cell tower real estate you own at _____________________(“Property”).    

1. Current Lease.  The Offer is based on the following terms of the current lease for the cell tower operated on the Property:

Current Rent:   $xxx.00 /month    Final Lease Expiration: xx/xx/xx

2. Payment to Owner.  Everest will pay to Owner the sum of xxxxx Thousand and No/100 Dollars ($xx,000.00) per year until the expiration of the Current Lease.  Owner will keep all rents generated by the Current Lease until expiration. Additionally, commencing at the expiration of the Current Lease, Everest shall thereafter pay to Owner ongoing payments equal to Fifty Percent (50%) of the rental revenues received by Everest from any lessee(s) of the Property.

 3. Easement. In exchange for the consideration above, Everest will be granted an easement to the property. The easement area shall be the portion of the Property currently leased for wireless telecom use, and shall include access and utility easements thereto. 

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CELL TOWER LEASEHOLDERS

There are a few concerns that landowners should have about this offer. First, a landowner who receives this offer should clarify with Everest whether they intend to take over the ownership of the tower at expiration, whether they plan to sell the lease back to the tower company, or whether they expect to renegotiate the lease with the tower company and take 50% of the rent for doing so.   

In the first scenario, these types of offers can be attractive to landowners. Our clients who previously sold to Tristar were generally better off for doing so.  

In the second scenario, we believe the landowner is better off just selling or renegotiating the lease with the tower company. Otherwise, at expiration, if Everest sells the lease to the tower company, the tower company could just decide to offer below market lease terms and the landowner would get the very short end of the deal.   

In the third scenario, we also believe that the landowner is better served by selling to the tower company or renegotiating the lease with the tower company. Unless the "buyout" amount exceeds the present value of 50% of future rent from the extended tower lease, the landowner would be better off just keeping the lease and negotiating its own extension or sale with the tower company.   

Accordingly, if you receive an offer from Everest, we recommend confirming with them whether they intend to take over the tower at expiration. If not, we suggest asking Everest about their explicit intentions with the lease. In either of the latter two scenarios, we recommend contacting us so that we can help you determine the value of the lease and explain fully all of your options – not just those presented by Everest.   

Please note that we are not affiliated with Everest. Everest Infrastructure Partners may be a registered trademark. If you found this post while searching for Everest Infrastructure Partners, please direct your browser to www.everestinfrastructure.com.   

AT&T Shifting Capex into Small Cells

Implications: T, S, ZAYO, CCI, AIRO, COMM, DY, ERIC, NOK  (Disclosure- author holds position in ZAYO)

Looks like T's finally cutting over to small-cell investment as S continues to under invest.

Carrier capex budgets for 2017 and forecasts for 2018 aren't out yet, but our checks indicate that AT&T, which has to-date been a relative holdout on small cells, is finally shifting investment share in this direction.

Back in June, T highlighted that 90% of its next-5-year macrocell infrastructure was already in place, but only 5-10% of the small cell infrastructure for this same period had been built.

Checks now show that T is beginning to reassign real estate department personnel to work on small cells. Furthermore, some subcontractors are reporting increased requests from AT&T to do site walks for small cells.

Notably, we are not yet seeing increased municipal permitting / leasing. Given 9-12 month lead times, this suggests that small cell ramps will occur toward the middle of 2017 with a likely acceleration into 2018.

We anticipate that T will focus its small cell efforts in Wireline markets where the company already owns existing fiber and has access to Right of Ways and Franchise Agreements. T will best be able to control costs in these areas where it is already considered a wireline utility and has existing infrastructure in place. These markets include most of the Southeast and Midwest as well as a few markets in California.

Map showing the states in which AT&T has wireline service
AT&T -Landline Markets before CT was sold (Image from AT&T)

Implications

 We see this shift as an incremental positive for fiber providers and small cell operators like ZAYO, CCI and CSAL; although the effect is likely to be muted to the extent that their metro fiber overlaps with AT&T's. It's a likely positive for OEMs like AIRO and COMM that provide small cell equipment and antennas but don't have exposure to the decline in macro cell equipment.  Implications will likely be mixed for DY, NOK and ERIC. They should benefit from increased small cell work but are already seeing reduced capex allocated to macro cells.

Sprint Follow-up

Related to our past comments on Sprint, (see 10/26 – Sprint (S) still behind small cell 8-ball), we continue to see additional data points supporting our thesis.

Sprint confirmed during their last earnings call that last year’s Capex was lower than their previous guidance to the market by $2B ($2.3B actual vs $5B guidance).  Sprint has been talking up its plans for years with relatively little to show for it, and recognition seems to be building throughout the marketplace, and the investor community, that the Mobilitie relationship has yielded far fewer small cells than were anticipated.  Sprint is giving lip service to 2017 being a better year for permits and capex, but its hopes seem to be predicated on FCC leadership changes and possible rulemaking to remove impediments to small-cell deployment in right of ways.  In fact, Mobilitie seems to have pinned a significant amount of hope on a Petition to the FCC for Relief.

We think Sprint's capex will increase in 2017 off of an ultra-low 2016 number, but the service provider continues to struggle to deploy capex dollars.  We wouldn't be surprised to see major revisions to the strategy as well as Street expectations.

 

SITA Research Reveals the Real Big Game in Houston was in Small Cells

Small cell scoreboard.

A new competitive dynamic emerges in the fight for densification dominance

Tickers: ZAYO, CCI

(Disclosure- author holds positions in ZAYO)

The deployment of small cells started in earnest in 2015. Two years later, all of the Big 4 wireless carriers have adopted a small cell strategy to handle the 50+% YOY growth in mobile data usage. Along with acquiring or deploying fiber, the deployment of small cells sits at the heart of a hyperconnected 5G future.

As small cells have grown in prominence, analysts have argued about their impact on traditional tower company business models. Recently, Crown Castle (CCI) indicated small cells account for over 12% of total revenue and small cell deployment will only climb in the future—a trend we highlighted in our note Ten Predictions for 2017. Understanding how companies like CCI and Zayo deploy small cells, at what economics, and how the economics compare to historical returns on capital in the tower business is increasingly important.

Last week, we put out an article on how wireless service providers connect with their subscribers at the Superbowl. In doing research for this article, we looked at towers and small cell infrastructure using our proprietary tower and small cell database to examine deployments in and around NRG Stadium in Houston, TX. The wireless carriers have been actively densifying their networks in Houston to prepare for the onslaught of increased wireless data usage, and our data shows ZAYO and CCI competing for the city’s small cell future. While this note focuses on ZAYO and CCI in Houston, there are other players with a presence in this bellwether market. For the sake of simplicity, we’ve chosen to focus on what we see as the top two competitors going forward.

There are three key takeaways that emerged from our research:

1. At the end of the first quarter of small cell deployment, ZAYO is ahead of CCI in Houston.

Zayo is significantly ahead of Crown Castle in the deployment of small cells in Houston, where CCI’s headquarters is located and where CCI just closed on the acquisition of Fibernet earlier this month). CCI stated on their earnings call on 1/26/2017 that “FiberNet substantially strengthens our footprint in Miami and Houston, both markets where we are seeing significant small cell demand.” But despite CCI’s claims about their efforts in Houston, our checks indicate that Zayo small cell nodes (both proposed and completed) exceed CCI nodes by a factor of approximately 10x, giving ZAYO a significant advantage in the market. We have plotted these deployments in the map below, with ZAYO in green and CCI in yellow, and ZAYO’s advantage is clear. Map showing the proposed and deployed small cells for Crown Castle and Zayo in Houston

Our research is specific to Houston and is not a commentary on the ZAYO vs. CCI competitive dynamic across the entire US. We see accelerated development of small cells in Houston because it is a top three city in terms of population and because of the publicity surrounding the Big Game.  However, from a zoning and permitting perspective, Houston is “infrastructure friendly” relative to other cities.  In other words, Houston is an ideal location for robust small cell deployment, so we will continue to watch developments in the marketplace as a bellwether for other major cities. 

2. The Small Cell Game is fundamentally more competitive than the Macrocell game, and First-Mover-Advantage is critical.

Small cells are more competitive than traditional towerco business models, and so the first-mover advantage is more important. Because small cells are deployed primarily in the right of way, and with fewer zoning restrictions and limited NIMBYism to constrain competitive deployments, the first company to win the land grab has an advantage attracting carriers as customers. In some areas, we are hearing that there are six to seven applicants applying for right of way access rights simultaneously in the same locations.

Already having fiber in the ground is beneficial because it enables the lead infrastructure company to solicit potential wireless service providers first. If a second infrastructure company enters the market and builds out the same right-of-way, then a duopoly is created wherein neither gets all four customers onto nodes along the same fiber routes. The best case duopoly IRR scenario is three carriers on the lead and just one on the follower; however, our research suggests that so far Sprint is focused on deploying its own nodes; so markets tend toward two customers on the lead and one on the follower. In their 4th Q earnings call, CCI indicated that “we are building small cell systems with initial yields of 6% to 7% that increased to low-double digits with the second tenant and higher yields with the third and fourth tenants.” This statement presupposes a local monopoly for the leader, not a lower-yielding duopoly. And let's not talk about what happens when there are more than two fiber providers in the same Right of Way.

Our proprietary data allows us to quantify the monopoly vs duopoly state of Houston and therefore to narrow in on CCI’s return on investment as small cells are added to FPL Fibernet’s assets.  If rumored carrier consolidation between Sprint and T-Mobile occurs, the first-mover advantage grows as fewer carriers mean that the second infrastructure deployed in any given city has a fundamentally lower potential return profile. Though the reverse is also true; entry by a cable company into the wireless space could expand the number of potential customers, enabling higher second-mover returns. Net net, with no guarantee of a local monopoly, the second infrastructure deployed is simply compressing the wireless value chain in the favor of carriers. 

3. Even though CCI is down in the first quarter, they can still turn it around.

We are not suggesting that Fibernet was a bad acquisition, nor that ZAYO has the Houston market in the bag. When Crown announced the Fibernet acquisition, the expectation was that CCI would be able to use the valuable metro-fiber plant to encourage small cell deployment on or near that fiber. CCI has indicated they are seeing strong interest for small cells in Houston but hasn’t yet provided any clarity on what constitutes “strong” and whether what they are seeing is in-line with their expectations.

We believe that both companies have valuable assets in Houston, especially to the extent that their infrastructure does not overlap—a factor which our proprietary datasets allow us to quantify. However, it is still too early to determine the degree to which CCI will succeed with Fibernet’s Houston assets. The small cell game is still too early to call. 

We will continue to closely monitor the situation in Houston and we will be expanding our research to additional top 25 markets in the coming months.

 

About Steel in the Air: We have long focused on a data-driven analysis of tower data and on lease rate data for wireless infrastructure. We were the first nationwide cell tower lease consultant and we are the largest, having assisted over 3,500 clients over the last 13 years. We count small to mid-size tower owners, public entities, not for profits, big box stores, shopping center REITs, federal entities, and individual landowners among our clients. We have unique visibility to what is happening on the ground as it pertains to wireless infrastructure deployment. We track everything- every lease, every tower, every cell site, every cell tower lease buyout offer, and every sale of a tower portfolio that comes across our virtual desk. We provide custom research for investment banks on the public tower companies and the small cell providers and developers. If you are interested in discussing this or any article or topic, we can be retained for in-depth discussion and analysis. Contact us for more details.

Immaculate Cellular Reception: How Cell Phones Work at the Big Game

Superbowl Cell Phone Use Infographic
How your cell phone connects at the Big Game

 

Article-images-slice_02The Super Bowl LI fans streaming into NRG Stadium in Space City expect to witness a game-winning touchdown that will go viral. However, seeing it once won’t be good enough – not in this retweet world. If you turn back the calendar to July 1969, there was a different type of touchdown trending. The brains at mission control in Houston’s Johnson Space Center conversed with men on the moon nearly 239,000 miles away via a prehistoric wireless system. According to NASA, half a billion people huddled around television sets to watch a grainy live stream video of the space travelers walk on the lunar surface as if it was an end zone. They weren’t just pioneers in space exploration; they were perhaps the first to engage in genuine social media.Article-images-slice_05Not much has changed since then about a person’s innate desire to chat and share an experience while at a really cool place. And humans, especially cheering Falcons and Patriots fans on February 5th, will share nearly 20 Terabytes of Snapchats, Tweets, Instagram images, Facebook posts, and texts before, during, and after the Big Game.

HO-HUM. ANOTHER RECORD DAY FOR DATA USAGE.

Article-images-slice_09 - Copy

Tethered to their wireless devices, more than 72,000 fans inside NRG Stadium, along with several thousand enthusiastic tailgaters around the venue, are expected to surpass the nearly history-making 9 terabytes of cellular data consumed at the 2016 Super Bowl on the Levi Stadium Distributed Antenna System. They devoured another 10.1 terabytes of data while using the free stadium WIFI network. To satisfy the communication needs of this magnitude, the nation’s four major wireless carriers have been dissecting digital data since Broncos coach Kubiak was showering in Gatorade.
Before you get too excited about data use records being broken year after year at large sporting events, remember that it takes both a strong network and insatiable demand to set the record. As manufacturers continue to make dramatic advancements in their devices and wireless companies work feverishly to increase network capacity, the customer feels more empowered and demands greater amounts of data at events like these. And the nation’s carriers have no choice but to provide lightning-fast networks that will enhance the user’s social media experience. This vicious cycle will continue to generate new data records year after year which the wireless companies will not hesitate to crow about.

 

FANS EXPECT FAST, SEAMLESS CONNECTIVITY. 

WIRELESS CARRIERS MAKE SURE IT IS AVAILABLE.

Why be at the most coveted sporting event of the year if you can’t remind people that you are there? It’s a high-stakes day not just for the referees making the calls; if the carriers fail to transmit selfies, videos, Facebook likes, and Tweets faster than the speed of light, the natives will grow restless. Not to mention Facebook Live and other live video feeds, the gargantuan data-grabbers.  This could translate into a major marketing blunder, not only in the eyes of the customers but also their competitors. For them, the data relay race on Super Bowl Sunday is their wireless Super Bowl and they don’t want to be forced into taking a defensive position.

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So how do the wireless carrier masterminds orchestrate this stellar technological achievement without a hitch? Collaboration, teamwork, along with lots of data and mega bucks. Wireless carriers like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon have each invested anywhere from $10 million to $100 million to improve their cellular infrastructure. From a revenue perspective, it may not make sense to invest this much capital into their networks for this single event – but they will. Even if they could opt-out, the providers place immense value on their customers’ loyalty; the elite big four dread being roasted on social media for days if disgruntled fans complain of stuttering videos and mention them by name. So to prevent self-inflicted PR damage, the carriers will be on site to protect their brand and ensure customers are connected and content.

 

HOW THEY DO IT

For over a year, the City of Houston has been responding to requests and issuing building permits to the carriers authorizing the installation of hundreds of large and small cell sites, cell towers, temporary cell on wheels, distributed antenna systems (DAS) antennas and antenna equipment in preauthorized locations. Each site type has a very specific objective in the network. If all goes as planned, they will perform flawlessly, much to the delight of fans, carriers, and citizens of the host city. How does it all work? The image below shows how these various components interact to form what the industry refers to as a heterogeneous network or Het-Net.

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To accommodate the data demands of outdoor users, a complex interwoven network of large (macrocell) and smaller cellular network sites (small cells and DAS) have been strategically placed along the routes leading to NRG. They have also been staged at various other venues in Greater Houston in anticipation of thousands who will be anxious to join friends and family on social media. To guarantee their jubilation won’t be short-lived, carriers have rounded up just under 100 COWS, cell sites on wheels. These trailer trucks or mobile cell sites are equipped with powerful antennas and radio transceivers to generate extra juice for the cheering fans. The data-hungry partiers who thirst for greater capacity may never even notice the massive, elaborate infrastructure that was designed especially for them. However, they will appreciate it, nonetheless. After the event, the wireless companies can simply pack up this extra capacity and move it to the next event.

As motorists approach the stadium, they are in a steady lane of traffic on highways and roadways to the big event. Along their route, macrocells on towers, rooftops, and other structures are the first to transmit and receive cell phone signals to and from mobile phones. And inevitably the traffic gets congested, which naturally means more people are in the same concentrated area using their wireless devices. This is a call to action for small cell sites; they are deployed to “densify” or increase the capacity of the overall network. A small cell is an individual cell site that is smaller in size, power and coverage radius. The macrocells, small cells, and COWS are part of an incredibly smart network; engineers are able to adjust the capacity according to the density of users. With a click of a mouse, they can redirect multiple smart antennas on multiple sites to refocus on areas of congestion.   

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As the countdown clock ticks closer to kick-off, festive fans begin to arrive at the stadium. Some may congregate at a pregame event or join tailgaters. Still, others may gather with friends and family at a hotel or nearby park. Outside the stadium, wireless carriers have installed a “Het-Net” of rooftop and tower macrocells, small cells, COWS, and powerful Outdoor Distributed Antenna Systems. This infrastructure will provide the capacity boost for the fans. Wherever the fans are, the system must be ready and able to handle the migration and respond with precise accuracy to any media request they are making. By layering small cells and DAS nodes under the macrocells, the wireless carriers make sure that you have coverage wherever you go and capacity whenever you need it.


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A BIRD’S EYE VIEW OF THE CELLULAR INFRASTRUCTURE NEAR THE STADIUM

So how and where does this infrastructure get deployed? Steel in the Air, Inc. examined its proprietary cell tower/infrastructure database to determine the amount and location of wireless infrastructure in the area of NRG Stadium.

Below is a map showing the wireless infrastructure.

NRG Stadium Cell Tower Map copy

graphIf you examine the map, you will see that the towers and rooftop sites are taller and farther apart and provide wider area coverage over the surrounding areas. Underlying the towers and rooftop macrocells are Distributed Antenna System nodes and small cells (both of which are labeled as small cells for simplicity). While this map only includes the area surrounding NRG stadium, similar tower and small cell development permeates all of Houston. To the right is a chart showing how many cell sites are within 2 miles of the Stadium and our estimate of all sites in the Houston metropolitan area.

 

IT DOESN’T END ONCE YOU ENTER THE STADIUM

Outdoors, mobile devices are connected to the cellular network. But once inside the stadium, it’s a whole new ballgame as your device connects to the stadium’s WiFi. And this is where the focus has been intensified. Stadiums built in recent years are constructed with reinforced concrete columns, tons of steel and energy-efficient windows. They, like the 1.9 million square foot NRG Stadium, are nearly impenetrable fortresses daring any wireless signal to enter. However, the nation’s wireless providers are up to the challenge of providing enough capacity to appease approximately 100,000 individuals. Getting enough fiber and bandwidth past all the barriers to end users in the centermost parts of the venue presents an even bigger obstacle. It requires installing nearly 1,300 access points throughout the venue, even placing them underneath seats. That is one access point for every 61 one fans expected to attend the game. Saturating the stadium with WiFi should prevent guests from enduring the frustration of being in a wireless dead zone. For the stadium owner, it gives them the ability to provide catered information and services to their attendees. More importantly to the wireless carriers, it saves them from having to build out a more robust (read expensive) Distributed Antenna System. In most cases, WiFi is cheaper to deploy than cellular connectivity.

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The providers have already spent lavish amounts of money to obtain access – simply for the unique right to be there. Wireless Week states that Verizon, the official wireless provider of the Houston Texans and NRG’s major tenant, has invested $40 million on its Distributed Antenna System.

The return on the investment? According to Verizon, fans will enjoy a capacity increase of 450%. {This link has a nice photo.} AT&T matched that amount, and T-Mobile and Sprint also made significant investments to boost LTE capacity. Their goal is to provide seamless WiFi connectivity for the users, so they won’t use their normal data plans. Otherwise, there would be a data overload.
According to GeekWire, users at the golden anniversary Super Bowl last year consumed 63% more data over the WiFi network than at the prior year. And since records are made to be broken, the stats for 2017 may well eclipse Levi’s Stadium’s 10 TB record.

 

GAME PLAN
TO HANDLE THE PEAKS AND VALLEYS

Meanwhile, at the command center, hundreds of radio frequency engineers and technicians from all four wireless carriers and from the stadiums WiFi vendor will be monitoring network performance. Armed with data and experience, they can project the peak and valley data usage locations in and around NRG. And they dare not forget that many people will bring more than one device. Even before the coin toss, the nation’s major providers will have their eagle-eyes trained on computer screens. Data requests will be rising, as well as the rhythm of their hearts. Everything in and around this day is built and designed for peak usage; it is the cornerstone. It is those critical levels when a network is most vulnerable. The first moonwalker, Neil Armstrong, reflecting back on the lunar landing remarked,"…there were just a thousand things to worry about." The carriers know the feeling.
There’s nothing like a touchdown to bring fans to their feet. Simultaneously, they are seizing data as fast as they can to capture the event and send their Oscar-worthy video to family and friends. As they post either their joy or disgust on Facebook, watch an instant replay on their device, or snap celebratory selfies, those at the command center plan to keep boosting network performance. The halftime festivities are also times of intense peaks. If fans aren’t watching the activities on the field, they are active on social media, either in their seats or as they wait in a long line for refreshments of relief.

The carriers will start to breathe a collective sigh of relief after the champions hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy, but their work isn’t quite finished. Departing fans will still be active on social media. Geekwire stated that at the 2016 Super Bowl, Facebook was the most active social app. And to think that when Houston last hosted the Super Bowl in 2004, Facebook was still three days away from being launched. And Twitter didn’t earn its wings until 2006.Article-images-slice_40

One major, continuous event during the week-long Super Bowl festivities is the NFL Experience. This massive interactive display provided by the National Football League is located a few miles away at the cavernous George R. Brown Convention Center. One of the main attractions will be personalized digital photos. Again, the four major providers have revved up WiFi’s infrastructure to provide enough capacity for thousands of attendees to share their adventures on social media. The NFL Experience is designed to allow fans to enjoy an exhilarating atmosphere with others who share the passion for football. They can even be dazzled by viewing the prized Lombardi Trophy on display. Those who lack a ticket to the Super Bowl, may use their imaginations to transport them to a front row seat inside NRG.
Once the NFL has exited NRG stage left, a steady stream of other events will converge on the stadium. So the millions of dollars invested by the providers will benefit the millions who will visit the venue and the surrounding area shortly. In fact, the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo will begin setting up for the world’s largest rodeo event, running March 7–26. The average daily attendance is 2 million, all of whom will salute Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T for enriching their experiences, which they will no doubt, share on social media.

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Rooftop Small Cell in Syracuse, NY (Ken’s Hometown)

Despite living here for over a year now, I just came across my first small cell in the City of Syracuse.   The site and equipment are located on and adjacent to the rooftop of Rosie’s Bar & Grill just west of Syracuse.

Small Cell Location

Below is a photo showing the rooftop small cell- which includes a small antenna mount along with an omni type antenna.  Based on what we have seen in proposed Verizon rooftop small cell plans for other clients- this appears to be a Verizon installation.

Small Cell Photo
Rooftop Verizon Small Cell

The Verizon small cell connects to an approximately 4′ tall equipment cabinet mounted on a steel platform on the side of the building.    Verizon has likely entered into a small cell lease agreement with Rosie’s for the placement of the equipment.  They typically offer $250/month to $300/mo. for this type of lease although like anything that is negotiable.   If Verizon or another small cell provider contacts you for a similar proposal- give us a call at (877) 428-6937 or contact us.

Small Cell EquipmentSmall Cell Equipment