Opinion: Stories of small cell application agreements failure between carriers and cities are too often part of the wireless lobby efforts (in the media) to maintain profit margins.

This type of fluff pieces provide no actual statistical data on how most cities treat applications for small cells instead relies upon anecdotal examples from isolated cities. There is no statistical information about how many municipalities “are acting as if they’re 100-foot towers”. No study or other reference proving this oft-stated dictum from the carriers and their lobbyists. 

Where the author chooses to cite an actual city with high lease rates for small cells, he fails to acknowledge that the cited lease rates for Newport Beach are historic data from old DAS agreements. Furthermore, he ignores that the wireless providers in CA still have the right to utilize Joint Pole Authority poles from utilities at lower rates.  This type of piece suggests that the municipalities alone are restricting the deployment of 5G- and fails to acknowledge that there are actual utility poles available to the wireless carriers that are available at federally prescribed rate schedules. This article also ignores the fact that many times the wireless carriers prefer to install new poles in the ROW because it is cheaper for them not to have to do a structural analysis on an existing pole despite the added impact on residents aesthetically and to the city from a public safety and operational standpoint. 

5G isn’t imperiled because of municipalities- its imperiled by wireless carriers desire to maintain 40-50% margins and their concern that such margins may erode without public welfare. It is imperiled by the unwillingness of utilities like the very companies asking for relief to share their poles- either existing ones or new ones.  I don’t doubt there are difficult municipalities and those that may be overreaching- but using unsupported platitudes to justify a fluff opinion piece like this is a disservice to the discussion. But then again, that seems to be the wireless industries playbook. Point to the bad actors without providing any substantive data on how many good actors there are.  

Weird Revenue Sharing Clause

One of our clients received a proposal from a tower company that included a revenue share clause. Generally, revenue shares are not proposed by wireless carriers and even less so by tower companies. However, because our client is a governmental entity, I assume the tower company figured it would be better to put a revenue share out for discussion instead of waiting for it to be added. 

However, this particular revenue share being proposed is a bit odd. For tenants added in the first 5 years of the lease, the landowner will get $150/mo. per tenant. For tenants added after year 5, the rate drops to $75/mo. For tenants other than AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile, the rate is $50/mo. no matter when they are added.

There are a number of issues with this proposed revenue share language. First, we generally advise landowners not to accept fixed-rate revenue shares; instead, they should look for a % of revenue. A revenue share is intended to give the landowner participation in the revenue and often comes with a lower base lease rate to accommodate the future upside. A fixed revenue share though does not tie the landowner’s upside to that of the tower company- instead, it limits it no matter how much the tower company is getting for the lease. Furthermore, the reduction here from $150/mo. to $75/mo. after year 5 is ridiculous and serves no benefit other than to take advantage of lesser informed landowners. Even worse is the $50/mo. for any other tenant – which could include tenants that will pay more than traditional cellular tenants and would exclude future entities that enter the business regardless of how much they pay. From the tower company standpoint, having a fixed rate revenue share is much simpler from an accounting standpoint and much more profitable. 

This particular proposal won’t be accepted by the landowner- who will and can counter with a % based revenue share given the fact that they own pretty much everything around this location. However, in other situations, the landowner may have to accept these types of terms especially if there are other readily available options. The key of course if trying to figure out whether your property is unique or not. If you need help, please contact the experts at Steel in the Air.

For those of you in the industry- have you seen other revenue share proposals that are innovative or outright ridiculous?

The main points non-technical reporters get wrong about 5G

I find it fascinating how non-technical reporters (for example An Investor's Primer: 5G, the Internet of Things, and Augmented/Virtual Reality and 5G Wireless Will Redraw the Wireless Industry Map: Who Stands to Lose?) try to simplify 5G and explain it in nearly binary fashion.

So let’s get a few things straight:

1. Stop calling it a “race”.
It isn’t a sprint nor is it a marathon. The better analogy is that 5G is like the Olympics. There will be many winners in many different events and some losers. Some events will end up getting added; some will go away due to lack of popularity. But trying to simplify 5G as if it is just a single race demonstrates a lack of understanding of the complexity and sophistication of the 5G protocols.

2. 5G at its core isn’t sexy- so stop trying to make it so.
The wireless industry likes to make 5G exciting and futuristic by glorifying things like self-driving cars and wireless virtual reality and remote surgery. While these types of applications may (operative word is may) end up being part of the 5G ecosystem, they are a nominal part of 5G. The business case for 5G is in improved network reliability and cheaper delivery of services. All of the glamorous applications will require significant densification- which many experts still question as economically justifiable anywhere other than urban areas.  

3. The average consumer won’t see the benefit from 5G in any significant fashion until 2021 at the earliest.
It doesn’t matter when each carrier says they will have some cities online or test markets active. 5G use will be constrained by handset availability and business development even in these test markets.  

I don't mean to be disrespectful to the work of non-technical reporters, but rather to clarify certain topics related to 5G that I've seen the media get wrong. 
How about you? Have you come across hyped or technically incorrect 5G commentaries or articles? What did they claim?

Our Predictions for the Wireless (and Wired) Industries in 2018

Every year, we put together our prognostications for the coming year. This year, we are obviously a little late – primarily because the beginning of the year has been very active for SITA. In the final days of 2017, I drafted a “State of SITA” email to our staff, predicting that 2018 would be the Year of More. And that’s just what we are seeing – more of everything. More proposed new leases – both from carriers and tower companies looking to build new towers. More amendment activity on existing sites as all four carriers are actively pursuing applications for site mods. More lease extension offers and more lease buyout offers with more rent or more money, respectively. More of our clients are seeing substantial offers to acquire their leasehold interests at a premium. So, what does that mean for 2018?


1. 5G Becomes Closer to Reality and Farther from Carrier Fiction.












Anybody else annoyed with 5G hype? Seems like you can’t look at the trade magazines or TV ads or newspapers without seeing an article or ads with one carrier proclaiming why their 5G vision is better than the others. Hint: 5G has the same potential for each carrier. Their visions are different because the carriers don’t have the same spectrum or fiber. With 5G being so encompassing in terms of wired and wireless technologies, it necessarily will be deployed differently for each carrier.

Guess what, each cable company, fiber provider, and wireless internet service provider will have their own distinctive brand of 5G. But the good news is that instead of the vague marketing hype, we are already starting to get more specific but still preliminary information about the 2018 and 2019 strategies early in 2018.

This trend will continue when we start to see actual deployments. As previously stated, we are seeing more applications for site modifications on behalf of our clients. Some of these actually have pre-5G equipment specified, and, as the year goes on, we will see actual 5G equipment being deployed. While it may be pre-standard, it is critical to remember that 5G is an evolution, not a revolution. (Bring on the comments.)


2. Whatever the G, It Still Means More Macrocell Activity.












Every year around this time, we are asked how this year stacks up against the previous year in terms of carrier activity, especially as it pertains to tower companies. Most years, we tend to be optimistic, but this is probably the year we are most optimistic about.For the first time in years, we are seeing actual, repeated, and specific activity by Sprint. Vendors are actually hiring to staff Sprint projects, applications are coming in, and projects that were on hold for years are coming back up.

Landowners are being contacted by Lendlease on behalf of Sprint and by Sprint directly. Mobilitie is actively pursuing small cell applications (the normal way this time). This is on top of AT&T FirstNet activity (2H 2018), T-Mobile rural expansion, and Verizon’s continued steady-eddy development. It’s a good year to be a tower company other than projections #3 and #7 below.


3. And Carriers Are More Willing Than Ever to Consider Alternatives to Existing Towers.













Unfortunately, we will start to an increase in cell tower lease terminations (i.e. churn) in the not so distant future, just as much of the Clearwire, Cricket, MetroPCS, Nextel, US Cellular lease terminations is coming to a close.

Why? Because carriers are less willing to accept high-dollar sites, especially when they have build-to-suit tower companies that are willing to make questionable investment decisions to build new towers next to existing towers. Furthermore, structural capacity issues of existing towers will strain the ability of wireless carriers to make site modifications without substantive structural modifications required to the tower. Rather than put more money into OPT (other people’s towers), the carriers will see the opportunity to build another tower adjacent to the existing tower, thereby limiting their future Opex and pushing Capex to an asset they own.

Still thinking that this won’t happen in scale? What we are seeing day to day suggests otherwise. Fortunately, the terminations may not immediately impact TowerCo revenue, but they will in the future as the underlying leases expire or to the earliest date that they can be terminated. Already, some tower companies like American Tower are starting to tell landowners that they can’t offer terms as good as previously on lease extensions because they have received non-renewal notices from AT&T. (As an aside, we also expect to see more announcements similar to that of Crown Castle’s, where they extended some of their underlying Master Lease Agreements in order to prevent further lease terminations.)


4. Fiber, Fiber, Fiber.

More fiber deployed. More glass ordered. More puffery by some carriers of how they can handle backhaul through agreements with cable companies. More dark fiber than previous years. More fiber redundancy.

The carriers who don’t have fiber will find themselves rushing to deploy it as 5G becomes closer to reality and customer expectations are measured against wireless carriers that have dense fiber. Having 5G-capable wireless transmission equipment won’t mean much if the end user can’t use 5G because of too many users and too little fronthaul/backhaul. Already, Verizon has hinted that 2018 Capex will be skewed more toward fiber than 2017. AT&T announced in March that they anticipate that fiber deployment will accelerate, which was partially due to the 2019 deadline for deployment to 12.5 million homes as a result of an agreement with the FCC during the DirecTV acquisition.Expect the same from other carriers. We had this same projection in our 2017 projections, and we expect this year to be even better.


5. Edge Computing Relies on Fiber – and Small Cells.












Not familiar with edge computing? To quote Wikipedia, edge computing “is a method of optimizing cloud computing systems by performing data processing at the edge of the network, near the source of the data. This reduces the communications bandwidth needed between sensors and the central datacenter by performing analytics and knowledge generation at or near the source of the data.This approach requires leveraging resources that may not be continuously connected to a network such as laptops, smartphones, tablets, and sensors.” In other words, it puts computing resources closer to the end user.

What is required for edge computing? The oversimplified answer is that three things are needed: fiber, power, and a secure location for equipment. Guess who has all three of these in spades: wireless providers, cable companies, fiber entities, and tower companies. Expect to see a flurry of announcements about edge computing in 2018, with intensity ultimately rivaling that of 5G announcements. But, like 5G, these will still be more hype than reality, at least for another year or two.


6. But the Road to Deploying Small Cells Isn’t Settled Yet!












After a series of victories last year in statewide legislation, the carriers and tower companies suffered a setback in the vetoing of similar legislation in California. Industry favorable legislation will be introduced again in CA and perhaps passed if the wireless industry is willing to back down the totality of their demands. However, cities are starting to see what good small cell deployment looks like and what bad small cells deployment looks like.

More information is available about small cells that are more positively received or just not noticed, and those installations that, on their face, are objectionable. Some short-sighted companies (not just one that starts with “M”) have deployed some really bad small cells/macros/mini-macros on utility poles and on new poles in the Right of Way (ROW). (See the City of Santa Rosa vs Verizon – which suggests that just because you have the right to install something ridiculous doesn’t mean that you should.)

Cities are becoming more intelligent and will start to demand attractive small cells. I suspect that we will see more intelligent and organized opposition to statewide legislation while simultaneously seeing the wireless industry increase the pressure through lobbying and contributions to state legislators. We will also see some state legislators cave to pressure from their constituents when the above-mentioned short-sighted companies install ugly small cells in front of people’s homes and businesses. We are already seeing municipalities draft contracts that protect their interests better, even in states with small cell legislation. Don’t get me wrong, I suspect that the industry still comes out ahead at the state and federal level overall, but we will see municipalities be innovative as well in how they maintain their ROWs.


7. All of This Activity Requires More Capable Workers, Which the Industry Simply Doesn’t Have.

The only thing that will hinder the Year of More is not enough qualified tower crews. In our regular discussions with industry vets, the same topic comes up: where can we find tower crews to do the work?

With AT&T’s FirstNet commencing in earnest, T-Mobile’s continued 600MHz build, Sprint’s tri-band overlays and new macros/small cells, and Verizon’s steady macro and small cell deployment, there simply aren’t enough tower crews to go around. Expect to see announcements in earnings calls about why rollouts aren’t happening as planned due to labor shortages.

The irony is that the wireless carriers helped cause this labor shortage by driving the price down so effectively that many tower construction companies found other non-wireless work rather than accept sub-standard terms.


8. 2018 Will be the Year for Landowners to Secure Their Cell Tower Lease Revenue.

2017 was the first year where we started advising our clients that securing their cell tower lease revenue was more important than maximizing it. The wireless service provider toolbox has more tools in it than ever before to relocate/terminate high-dollar sites. That’s not to say that the carriers won’t continue to pay top dollar for unique locations, just that some locations that were previously unique are no longer unique.

That means that smart landowners/building owners will endeavor to understand the risks to their cell site/cell tower lease, especially if the lease rate being paid for the cell site is significantly higher than average. Depending on the location and the availability of other options (small cells, new build-to-suit towers, cell splitting), you may find that it is better to sell the lease or accept some small concessions in order to gain long-term security in your lease.


The year of 2018 offers a wide range of opportunities and uncertainties. Devil is in the details, and it's all about how you play your cards. If you're a wireless sector investor and want to talk through our projections and how they might impact the wireless stocks, we can be engaged for short discussions or more in-depth analysis of the sector.  If you are looking for real-time data about what is actually happening at the collocation lease level or with equipment modifications- we have it in spades.  
If you are a landowner or an existing client of Steel in the Air, please get in touch to schedule a free consultation to discuss your needs and if/how we can help. You can reach me on LinkedIn with a message or contact us here.


Are Three Towers Really Necessary?

Zoning Board Questions Whether They Should Be Forced to Allow Three Towers Within 300' of Each Other

First- start by reading this news article about how the Cape Elizabeth, ME planners are dealing with a request from Tower Specialists to build a new tower near an existing Crown Castle tower that has already been slated to be torn down and replaced with a new tower on the adjacent property. In the image below, the site to the right is the existing Crown Castle tower which the article indicates will be torn down in 2019. The location to the left is the new Crown Castle tower.

Why would Crown Castle tear down an existing tower and build a new one next door?

Because they couldn't come to agreeable terms with the existing landowner to extend their ground lease on the existing property. We are contacted regularly by landowners for proposed Crown Castle leases and the first thing we look at is whether there is an existing Crown Castle tower near the proposed location to see whether this is occurring. Most of the time we find that there are existing towers nearby. In some cases, Crown is moving the tower because the existing owner is seeking too high of a lease rate for an extension of the lease or because they are no longer willing to lease their land for a tower. In other cases, the existing tower needs substantial structure modifications to accommodate additional equipment and it is cheaper over time from a Capex and Opex standpoint to build a new tower. And in rare cases, we believe Crown Castle will build a new tower out of spite because they don't like the landowner.

To make this even more interesting, if you look at the image below, you will see that there is a second tower on the same property. The Crown Castle tower appears to have 3-4 wireless carriers collocated on it, while the other tower has 1-2.  Apparently there are 6 towers on the subject property including some smaller ones not visible in the photos. 

So, I Get Why Crown Castle Is Building a Tower, But Why Is a Third One Proposed?

Good question. We heard directly from the property owner who is also a tower developer.  He shared with us that he did tell Crown that the family wasn't going to renew the lease.  He proposed the new tower after Crown submitted to relocate the existing tower on the adjacent property.   

The property owner in the article suggests that the carriers all want to be at 180' (even though only one carrier was at that height previously on the existing tower).  The Town Board has required him to come back with detailed RF propagation maps that show that the carriers all have to have 180' as justification for a third tower here. While I am sure that the property owner can find a radio frequency engineer that will provide maps that purport to show a difference – there really isn't a significant one between 170' and 180' especially since those carriers who are lower than 180' on the existing tower already built the nearby cell sites in their network to match up with the coverage from this tower and vice versa.  

How Do Landowners Know if They Are Pushing Too Hard?

Unfortunately, signing a backup lease with an adjacent property owner is now standard operating procedure for tower companies when negotiating an extension of an existing tower lease. The tower companies will take the term sheet they negotiate and show it to the stubborn  landowner as demonstration of their willingness to move the tower. For landowners who are approached for a new lease, we advise they consider the possibility that they will spend time negotiating and finalizing a lease and money on hiring an attorney or a consultant or both to review the lease while not getting anything in return. For landowners who have an existing tower on their property, the "equation" for whether you are asking for too much is a difficult one because it depends upon the following variables:

1. Cost to relocate the tower

2. Probable lease rate on alternative site location

3. Probability of success of getting zoning and other regulatory approvals

4. Ownership of the tower (does the tower company own the tower or does the carrier)

5. Number and identify of carriers on the existing tower

6. Time remaining until expiration

7. How much you are asking for

8. How difficult you have been to negotiate with in the past

Whether you have been approached for a new cell tower lease near an existing tower or you have an existing tower lease where you are negotiating for an extension, we can help. Give us a call to discuss further or contact us here.




Akron, OH May Sell Water Tower and Cell Tower Ground Leases


The City of Akron has decided to sell its cell tower and water tower leases to Everest Infrastructure Partners. Curious who they are? The founders are previously from Tristar Investors- a company that purchased easements under tower company towers in order to sell them back to the tower companies. I can’t say whether Everest has the same business model. What is interesting though is that Everest paid a pretty penny for these assets.


Why Cities Should Think Hard Before Selling Leases


Typically, we advise cities against selling their leases because the sale limits the ability of future city councils to use the underlying properties as they see fit. For example, in this case, the City of Akron won’t be able to tear down these water towers at the end of their life or redevelop the underlying properties where the towers sit. That may not be an issue in this case depending upon the location and age of the properties/water towers. We also advise against selling of leases because the buyout offers for the leases aren’t nearly as high as what Everest Infrastructure Partners paid here. With this type of multiple of cashflow, this transaction is more like that of a tower acquisition than a traditional lease buyout. That’s because Everest gets the current and future revenue from these structures and properties that were sold and the City gets none.


But Cities May Not Have a Choice


Of course, there are many cases where cities like Akron don’t have another immediately accessible source of funding that doesn’t require raising taxes and must turn to liquidating assets like these cell tower leases. Here the City of Akron was facing a significant cash crunch. We have worked with two other Ohio cities that also ended up selling their leases. In both cases, they evaluated whether the location of the tower or water tower would potentially impact future expansion or development plans. After evaluating the potential sale, they determined that they could live with the future obligations.


The Lease Buyout Market is Back


Another point of interest is that the lease buyout market is getting frothy- we are seeing more entrants and higher offers than at any time in the last few years. For example, we just received a call from a company that had shut its doors and has now found funding to buy leases again. If you are considering selling your lease, it may make sense to look at doing it now. If you need to know more about lease buyouts- we have a very handy and complete website about the subject- www.celltowerleasebuyout.com.


Give us a call and we can help you ascertain the market value of your lease and walk you through the options related to selling.

Desperate to Get Back at the Tower Companies: The Verizon, AT&T, and Tillman Infrastructure JV

Aerial photo showing tower locations
Tillman Infrastructure Builds Next to American Tower
Yesterday, in a surprise press release by Verizon, Verizon indicated that it had formed a joint venture with AT&T and Tillman Infrastructure to develop "hundreds" of communication towers with "the potential for significantly more new site locations in the future".  Tillman Infrastructure is relatively new to the US- but owns a few thousand towers in Asia.  The press release further states that "These new structures will add to the overall communications infrastructure in the US, and will fulfill the need for new locations where towers do not exist today. They also will serve as opportunities for the carriers to relocate equipment from current towers."  


Our landowner clients have been contacted by Tillman Infrastructure for placement of new towers on their property. However, despite Tillman's claim to the contrary that the towers will be built where towers do not exist today, virtually all of the proposed Tillman towers we are seeing or hearing of appear to be near existing cell towers.  In other words, Tillman is building new towers right near existing public towerco towers because AT&T appears to be unwilling to continue paying the higher rent that they are paying on an existing tower. The requests that we have seen are primarily in rural areas, presumably where ground rent will be cheaper and where there is no zoning to prevent the proliferation of towers as being proposed by Tillman. (How do we know?  Because we maintain a comprehensive tower location and lease rate database and can easily look up the location of other nearby towers and in many cases identify specific tenants on those towers.) 


The first interesting aspect of the press release is not that Tillman is out building collocation replacement towers for AT&T on a build-to-suit basis, but that Verizon issued the press release.  This strikes us as a clear attempt by Verizon to enter a fray between the tower companies and the carriers where historically their public opposition has been muted.  We have already noted Verizon's reluctance to collocate on public tower company towers in the past- this is another option. However, we suspect that there isn't much of a commitment on Verizon's behalf other than that they will consider relocating to new towers from existing towers where Tillman can make them a much better offer than what they are paying already on the existing tower. To us, this press release suggests that neither Verizon nor AT&T has been successful at convincing the public tower companies to adjust their Master Lease Agreements (MLAs) significantly and that both companies are now trying publicly (desperately?) to damage the public tower companies by trying to impact their market valuation.  (SBAC dropped slightly yesterday while AMT and CCI were both relatively unimpacted.)   We suspect that previous negative comments by all the carriers during previous industry conferences and during earnings calls have been ineffective at changing deal terms in the MLAs and investors were not treating the threats seriously because the economics of building a single tenant tower on inferior build-to-suit terms are poor.   However, if both Verizon and AT&T are willing to move from an exisitng tower, suddenly the economics for the proposed tower become more attractive to the build-to-suit partner.  


The second interesting impact of this note is that it specifically calls out that the agreement is for a few hundred towers.  We struggle to understand why any of the three companies (except Tillman) would want the investment community to know that it is only a few hundred towers that are being considered currently.  While there is a veiled suggestion that it could be more, this press release would have potentially had more impact on investors had it been silent on the number of towers being considered.  A few hundred towers is a drop in the bucket for any of the public tower companies.  

Clearly there are benefits to AT&T and Verizon of relocating. Not only do they save rent, but they also avoid costly modification upgrade fees and possible structural modification Capex on the existing tower to accomodate additional equipment.   With FirstNet on its way, AT&T likely sees this as an alternative to dealing with the tower companies.

If you are a landowner who has been contacted by Tillman for a tower on your property, please contact us and we can help you evaluate their offer and whether you have room to negotiate and if so, by how much.   We will review whether there is an existing tower in the area and if so, whether there are other properties besides your that Tillman can select.  Please note that Tillman has advised our clients that if they get a consultant involved with negotiating the lease, that Tillman will take their tower elsewhere- so don't tell them we are involved.  There may be a time where it makes sense to do so though, at which point, we will advise you to tell them.

If you are an investor who wants to know more about specific areas of focus for Tillman, estimates of how many sites Tillman is pursuing, and which tower companies seem to be targeted more than others, please reach out to set up a paid research call.   We can also intelligently discuss the financial justification for moving and what amount of rent savings justifies relocation.  We can also discuss how the public tower companies will combat these efforts and when they will be effective and when they won't.  Lastly, Tillman isn't the only company focused on collocation relocation build to suit efforts – its just the first one that has gone public with its endeavor.  


Our Top Takeaways from NEDAS San Francisco Fall 2017

All in all, the conference was well done if not well attended. Personally, I think it is a rough year for wireless industry conferences. That is too bad in this case because the panels, for the most part, were thought-provoking and enjoyable. NEDAS chose the moderators and the participants well. Here is what we took from the conference.

1. The Wireless Industry Strongly Desires Predictability and Is Looking to the FCC to Obtain It.

Obviously, this is not a new theme. Despite moderately successful efforts to regulate small cell permitting and fees at the state level, the discussion at the conference was that in those states where legislation was passed, it actually takes longer to get small cell permits now than it did before. Some people suspect that this is due to the contentiousness behind the debates leading up to such legislation.

Most of the participants at the conference indicated that the difficulty is the patchwork of fees, regulations, and processes along with general ignorance by municipalities of what small cells are and what they do. We heard repetitively that industry participants understood the issues that municipalities face in getting up to speed and establishing processes and hiring staff members or reallocating staff time to address exponentially increasing small cell applications. Despite this recognition of the hurdles for municipalities, we also heard repetitively that the process still takes longer than it should. Personally, I think that the industry has a heightened and, candidly, an inappropriate level of expectation about how fast permits should be reviewed given the novelty of these applications and infrastructure. They assume that services by municipalities on hundreds of concurrent small cell applications should be handled immediately and at limited cost recovery. There were actually complaints at the conference from carriers who felt that permit turnaround in 60 days was insufficient and “impairing” their ability to roll out 5G despite the fact that standards aren’t even set yet for 5G.

The hope, though, is that the FCC will step in and create a uniform set of expectations in terms of the timing and process for small cells. Sentiment for strong FCC involvement seemed to be higher than normal at this meeting, primarily due to the slow rollout of states that have adopted small cell legislation and the vetoing of similar legislation in California.


2. Speaking of Small Cells, There Is a Disconnect Between Cities and Wireless Industry Participants and Observers on Who Does Small Cells Best.

In preparation for the conference, we spoke with multiple cities about their experience with applicants for small cells. We had lengthy discussions about what they saw that worked, who was the easiest to work with, who was most flexible, and what they did and didn’t like. In our discussions, Crown Castle’s name came up more than any other company as best to work with from the city planner’s perspective. We won’t say who came up as the worst, because they might threaten to sue us, but your first guess is almost assuredly right.

In anticipation of the conference, we ran a Twitter poll to ask whom industry participants and outsiders felt did the best job at working with cities on small cells.











Before the comments start flowing, we fully recognize that a Twitter poll should not be taken as gospel. We also realize there are many issues with the poll that include the limitation on companies considered, the form of the question, and the possibility that it is unlikely that there are 1,000 respondents with enough information about what all four companies are doing to make an informed vote. Nonetheless, it is helpful to show that, on the limited basis of this, there is a dichotomy on what we heard from our limited sample set of cities and what the public generally perceives regarding which companies are most effective at working with cities.


3. Some Industry Participants Question Whether 5G Has a Clear Path to Profitability










While there were a lot of statistics thrown around about fixed wireless, connected devices, increasing data usage, and video usage, none of the presenters or the people that we spoke with at the conference could enunciate how wireless carriers were going to generate more EBIDTA from the Capex deployed in the space. One particularly enjoyable and friendly exchange occurred between Charles McKee, VP-Government Affairs, and Milo Medin, VP Access Services of Google Fiber. After Charles discussed the issues that Sprint runs into when trying to permit small cells (all while completely ignoring Sprint’s role with Mobilitie and some of their “issues”), he addressed the need for densification in anticipation of 5G. Milo, in response, mentioned that he had a hard time seeing the rapid and robust deployment of 5G by the wireless carriers in the US. He believed that, given the industry environment with declining ARPU, increasing Capex expectations related to 5G, and broadband alternatives available to subs (now and in Google’s ideal 3.5GHz/Webpass future), he didn’t see how 5G deployment on the scale discussed by the industry would be economically viable. We don’t believe that Milo was saying that 5G in its entirety was not economically profitable, just that industry expectations relative to fixed wireless and massive densification are overstated. Personally, we believe strongly in the iterative nature of 5G as compared to 4G, but don’t see commercial 5G fixed wireless supplanting or even substantially diminishing wired share.


4. The Edge Will Get Closer and Closer to the End User








Much was made throughout the day about the edge and the need for putting data centers and caches near the edge. While we aren’t sold that tower companies have any unique vantage point over other more traditional fiber and data center plays in edge computing, we did leave the conference very sold on the need for edge data services. It is way too easy for the wireless industry to trot out the latest statistics that some large advocacy firm puts out, but even if you substantially reduce those statistics, you are left with strong, compelling evidence that the push to the edge is already here and will only accelerate. All of the panel participants suggested that this movement to the edge is a real estate play. We agree, but believe that there are many other sophisticated real estate/technology players out there who either have better fiber (owned not leased), better real estate, better access to ROWs, and better and more established connections to entities that need edge servers. As Doug Wiest said, the small cell/DAS/fiber/edge computing/data center world is significantly more complicated compared to towers. One thing is clear – the edge will keep getting closer to the end user and both wired and wireless networks will need to be more “accessible.”


5. Tech Giants Like Amazon Will Absolutely Go Wireless, Or Maybe They Won’t?












Multiple speakers included references to the FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) companies or spectrum owners like DISH entering into the wireless market in some capacity. Not necessarily as a wireless provider, but to provide access to their services and/or content. The problem is that not one of them gave any tangible evidence of why they expect this to occur. The general line of thinking is that these companies will need to protect their ability to serve or sell to their users on mobile. However, everything we are seeing suggests the opposite. Google seems to have very sporadic interest in broadband, Amazon is and has been in talks with DISH for some time, Netflix works out direct deals with broadband providers, and Facebook and Microsoft seem intent on acquiring and developing tech companies that they can then distribute on an open source basis for others to use. The ironic aspect of this to us is that none of these participants discussed the obvious entrants – MSOs like Comcast and Charter who continue to expand into wireless without much fanfare other than Comcast’s initial wireless MVNO launch.


6. Tower Companies Are Asked to Remember Who Their Client’s Clients Are










There was continued discussion about how the tower company business model is broken and how these companies have forgotten how to make their client’s (wireless carriers) clients happy. The supposition by some panelists is that those companies that will best serve their constituent clients will be the victors in the changing wireless and wired broadband world.

The analogy made was to the Minecraft Generation. As one panelist indicated, this generation thinks in terms of data. Voice is just another IP service to be provided on their device. These subscribers aren’t afraid to seek out the best connection – whether wired, wireless, or fixed. They just care about being Always Best Connected. The tower companies that help the wireless and non-wireless companies best connect to their subs will stand to gain more than those that just hope that increasing data usage alone will cause lease-up.

It must be stated that the public tower companies were not on any of the panels, so their point of view was not addressed. Nonetheless, we think that the play, in the US at least, is for tower companies to become more than just dumb pole providers. Vertical Bridge and Crown Castle are both pursuing being more to the carriers than just a tower owner.


Final Conclusion

Attendees were excited at the show about advancements which seem to be coming faster and faster on an exponential basis. There is also more skepticism/optimism depending on whom you spoke with regarding the opportunity for non-wireless participants to expand their wireless offerings and for traditional wireless companies to incorporate fiber and fixed wireless to offer wired-like offerings. NEDAS should be commended for sponsoring such thought-provoking discussion.




Not So Fast- California Governor Vetoes Small Cell Bill.

Small cell in San Francisco
Sunday night, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a contentious statewide small cell bill (SB649) which is one of many similar bills already passed in eleven other states. The bill would have removed local control over the placement of small cells and would have limited the fees that municipalities could charge for access to municipal pole infrastructure to $250/year.

This veto is fairly significant as the legislation has sailed through most other states without much influential opposition. The wireless industry has been targeting states for such relief from what they deem to be costly and time consuming small cell jurisdictional review and fees. In our opinion, the FCC seems to prefer that states regulate the fee structure but may choose to preempt local siting restrictions and approval process. AT&T has been the primary proponent of these statewide initiatives and has brought to bear a very well-financed and aggressive lobbying campaign at the state level to help push such legislation through.

The bill can still be pushed through with a 2/3rd majority in both assemblies. The bill passed the Senate by a 22 to 10 margin with 8 votes not recorded. The bill passed the Assembly with a 46 to 16 margin with 17 votes abstaining. If the vote occurred today with the same members voting as they did before, they would override the veto. Historically though, the California legislatures have been unwilling to override Governor Brown’s vetoes.

Why is this significant?

• California has more cities with difficult zoning that almost any other state in the US.

• California is near the top in terms of average small cell fee. This is not surprising given #1.

• California represents 12% of the US population. If one assumes a conservative total of 500,000 small cells to be deployed in the US and assumes that deployment will follow population, 60,000 of them will be deployed in California. Rates for small cell leases in California typically are 10 times higher or more than what the bill allowed at $250/year.

• Small cell deployment tends to follow areas of dense population. Of the densest urban areas of over 1,000,000 population, the top three are in California with five total in the top 10.

Before you assume though that this portends poorly for other statewide initiatives, we are cautious to point out that California cities tend to be more influential in statewide politics and that the opposition to the small cell legislation was by far the most organized and substantial as compared to that in other states.

Impact on Carriers (T, S, VZ, TMUS)

Despite industry rhetoric to the contrary, this won’t stop 5G nor will it prevent deployment of advanced technologies in California. None of the wireless carriers will allow California wireless throughput or quality of service to languish while customer’s churn to the best network in their area. However, this will delay deployment of small cells in California vis-à-vis other states that have passed small cell legislation although we don’t expect the delay to be material. There will be a negative impact on Opex for all carriers if the veto is not overridden and another bill is not passed in its place.

Impact on OEMs and E&C Companies (COMM, NOK, ERIC, MTZ, DY)

OEMs and E&C would have benefitted from the looser regulatory environment in CA both in terms of timing and amount of small cell and fiber investment. Ultimately, small cells will be deployed but perhaps in fewer numbers.

Impact on TowerCos (AMT, CCI, SBAC)

There will be a slight improvement on lease-up in California for the public tower companies as wireless carriers may choose to add short-term capacity via new macrocells on towers and existing structures as the Opex for a small cell stays higher relative to the Opex of a macrocell.

The Real Reason T-Mobile Increased Its Data Cap to 50GB

(Guess what – it isn’t because they feel their network can handle it!)

T-Mobile recently increases their data cap to 50GB before deprioritization occurs. For those who aren’t familiar with the difference between throttling and deprioritization, each of the wireless carriers has a cap on the data usage under their unlimited plans. Some carriers will simply throttle your data use to 3G speeds when you reach the cap, while others will deprioritize your data requests below other users who have not exceeded the cap especially in areas where there is network congestion. These caps are:

AT&T–     22GB

Verizon–    22GB

Sprint–     23GB

T-Mobile–    50GB (up from 32GB)

Some analysts have speculated that this is indicative that T-Mobile has a better network and believes that the additional GBs won’t impact T-Mobile as much as it would the other carriers. We tend to see this differently and point to a seemingly unrelated recent article in Fortune about how T-Mobile was asked to stop making fastest wireless data speed claims. We won’t bore you with an explanation of the actual testing mechanisms, but suffice it to say that every carrier (except Sprint) selectively chooses between various wireless testing sites and apps and pick and choose the results that best meet their advertising needs. At the end of the day, wireless is highly local for most people, and it really doesn’t matter who is the fastest everywhere else, only who is the fastest in the area that you use your device in. Furthermore, we doubt that very many people feel that LTE isn’t fast enough for virtually everything they want to do on their device other than 4K video which candidly, who cares if you can see 4K video on your phone or iPad?

Nonetheless, for T-Mobile, they can’t make the claim that their network is more reliable nor can they make the claim that they have the most coverage. So, they have to push other tangibles- like the fastest network. Make no mistake, T-Mobile has done a wonderful job of building out their network and adding faster LTE and carrier aggregation. They also are aggressively expanding to get closer to Verizon in terms of overall coverage. But we don’t believe for a minute that they believe that their network can over the longer term sustain 50GB per user per month. Fortunately, the average smartphone user in the US only uses 4GB per month, so increasing to 50GB only puts a small amount of strain on the network, at least until the average users with unlimited starts to really use it as unlimited.

What T-Mobile really stands to gain from this move is that it increases the average speed across their network especially on users that have used between 22GB and 50GB and possibly even though that use more than 50GB in non-congested areas. Because the other wireless carriers throttle users at lower amounts, throttling to 3G decreases speed by a factor of 1/4th to 1/5th as compared to 4G. This delta will increase over time. So, by increasing the cap, T-Mobile effectively increases the average data speed, thereby perhaps enabling them to claim once again that their network is the fastest. We wish that the testing companies would just start providing information on unthrottled and throttled performance for average speed separately so that consumers can make an informed decision. If the average person uses 4GB per month, why should they care what the average speed on a throttled plan?

Fundamentally though, this is good for landowners, tower companies, OEMs, and engineering and construction companies. Any increase in the amount of data before throttling or deprioritization increases use of the networks- and increases in the use of the networks require additional capacity which ultimately yields more site deployment and modification work.