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."  

"WHERE TOWERS DO NOT EXIST TODAY" – REALLY?

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.) 

VERIZON ENTERS THE FRAY

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.  

ONLY A FEW HUNDREDS TOWERS?

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.  

 

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.

Verizon’s Tricky-Tricky Cell Site Lease Assignment Language

Verizon sign/logo on building

We applaud Verizon for their interest in preventing their leases from being sold to third parties like lease buyout companies.  It is understandable that Verizon (along with other wireless carriers) would prefer not to have an informed third party purchase the rights to a Verizon ground or rooftop lease.   Having to work through a lease aggregator or whomever that lease aggregator sold their tranches of leases is difficult and time-consuming and likely exposes Verizon to increased cost because the aggregator is incentivized to maximize the rent.   To that end, we have heard of litigation between wireless carriers or tower companies and third party buyout companies who unreasonably withhold consent for modifications.  

However, in Verizon's newest template lease, they have gone too far.   For some time, Verizon has had a Right of First Refusal (ROFR) clause in their lease which prevents a landowner from selling the lease without giving Verizon the right to match the offer.  While we don't like the Right of First Refusal clause, we can accept it with some changes that limit the scope of the ROFR.   In their most recent lease template though, Verizon has added language that would make it difficult if not impossible for a landowner to assign the lease or sell the lease to a third party EVEN IF Verizon chooses not to match someone else's offer.  

Without any approval or consent of the other Party, this Agreement may be sold, assigned or transferred by either Party to (i) any entity in which the Party directly or indirectly holds an equity or similar interest; (ii) any entity which directly or indirectly holds an equity or similar interest in the Party; or (iii) any entity directly or indirectly under common control with the Party.  LESSEE may assign this Agreement to any entity which acquires all or substantially all of LESSEE's assets in the market defined by the FCC in which the Property is located by reason of a merger, acquisition or other business reorganization without approval or consent of LESSOR.  As to other parties, this Agreement may not be sold, assigned or transferred without the written consent of the other Party, which such consent will not be unreasonably withheld, delayed or conditioned.  No change of stock ownership, partnership interest or control of LESSEE or transfer upon partnership or corporate dissolution of either Party shall constitute an assignment hereunder.  LESSEE may sublet the Premises in LESSEE’s sole discretion.

In other words, Verizon is saying:  "If you get a poor offer to buy the lease that we want to match, we will. Conversely, if we don't want to match, we will not match and then we will decline to consent to your sale of the lease so you can't sell it anyway."   This is a crappy deal and we advise all landowners to remove the anti-assignment language from the lease.  If Verizon doesn't want you to sell to a third party, great.  They can opt to buy the lease directly; if not, they shouldn't be able to prevent you from selling to someone else.   Landowners who agree to this language will end up devaluing their leases as buyout companies won't make offers on leases that aren't assignable.  

Md7 Sending AT&T Renegotiation Letters- without Disclosing Letter is from Md7

We had heard previously that AT&T wasn't willing to allow lease optimization firms to send out letters on its letterhead without disclosing that the letter did not include actually come from the AT&T.   A client just received a letter though that clearly does not include anything identifying that Md7 (a lease optimization company) is involved.   We assume that Md7 is involved because the address on the letter as shown in the letterhead below

just happens to match that of Md7's offices.

The letter is the same as many other letters that are going out predominantly to private tower owners and municipal tower owners indicating that AT&T may extend or terminate the lease at the end of the current term and that AT&T is implementing a new program to "evaluate terms and conditions of all leases coming up for renewal, explore advance renegotiation options and consider alternative site locations." (emphasis added)   AT&T further requests that the tower owner: 

It appears that Md7 and AT&T have decided to remove any indication that Md7 is involved here altogether (except for the address).  Is that because the renegotiation efforts have been unsuccessful otherwise or is AT&T just looking to ratchet up the heat on tower owners to remove the opportunity for rent increases due to possible FirstNet modifications?  How many times can a company threaten to terminate a lease but not actually terminate it before owners just completely ignore the requests?   AT&T knows and based upon the fact that they keep sending the letters, there must be some tower owners that accept the revised terms with each round of letters.  

Et Tu, Brute? Verizon Appears to Have Hired Accenture to Renegotiate Cell Tower Leases Using Same Tired Threats of Relocation

Photo of Cell Tower
A cell tower with a substantial amount of equipment at the third RAD center
A municipal client, who has multiple public safety towers upon which Verizon is colocated, received a call and letter from a Verizon representative asking for reduced lease rate terms and escalation. The letter is on Verizon letterhead and does not make clear the relationship between Accenture and Verizon but refers to the Accenture employee or contractor as a "Verizon Representative." However, in the email from this representative, the signature block is for Accenture.  We surmise this means that Verizon is using Accenture instead of Black Dot or Md7 to renegotiate its leases. This is disappointing because Verizon has historically chosen not to stoop to these types of misleading negotiation tactics. And lest you think it is because of the ever more competitive wireless industry – Verizon still generates a very healthy 45.7% wireless profit margin.  

The letter states:  

As discussed during your recent call with ________, a Verizon representative, we are currently reviewing our real estate portfolio to assess market rates and trends. To remain competitive and provide the best value to our customers, we propose to modify our site lease terms, based on our knowledge of the market and our analysis of each site as follows:

 

 It further goes on to state (and this is the funny part):

Additionally, for all sites identified in this document, payment of rent shall include the following equipment rights:

  • 30,000 square inches wind load surface area at the RAD center (if available);
  • 10’ tip to tip RAD, if available. If not, space available up to 10’;
  • All you can build fixed fee amendments for the contract duration within the allotted tip to tip vertical and 30,000 square inches wind load surface area;
  • 16 cables;
  • No additional rent or fees for any additions or modifications to equipment throughout the contract term as long as the equipment rights identified above are not exceeded.

If we can't reach an agreement, we will remove you from our relocation list as we continue to evaluate our real estate portfolio.

As always, there is the implicit threat of termination – although carefully couched in language that doesn't constitute an anticipatory breach. So in essence, Verizon wants 30,000 square inches of equipment space in their 10' RAD center along with 16 cables. So no matter how much capacity this reduces on the tower or how much a tower owner would have to pay to structurally upgrade the tower to accommodate it, Verizon expects not to pay any additional fees. Generally, this is ludicrous and no tower owner should ever agree to this loading, regardless of whether they end up negotiating more favorable rent terms, in order to ensure the longevity of the lease. We aren't suggesting that Verizon may not eventually relocate some cell sites, just that it won't be that common and will be reserved for situations where they can save enough money by moving to justify the substantial expense of doing so.   

In this case, our municipal tower owner will be telling Verizon that they can keep their name on the relocation list. There is no chance on any of them that Verizon will end up moving. If you receive one of these Verizon/Accenture letters or calls threatening to renegotiate your lease or relocate the tower, please contact us.  

Want a Kinder Less Aggressive Tower Company Leasing Specialist? Just Fill Out a Survey!

Image of surveyOne of our client's called us yesterday to let us know that they had been beleaguered by a tower company rep who was perhaps too anxious and aggressive regarding a lease extension for a lease that wasn't set to expire for another 8 years.   This particular client has a Mona Lisa tower- a phrase American Tower used previously to refer to 4-6 carrier towers.   In other words, it wasn't going anywhere.   For some reason, the tower company rep felt that being aggressive and making all kinds of threats to move the tower and to cease discussions would make the landowner agree to the proposed terms.   

The landowner received a survey from the tower company- a generic one that asked about how the landowner felt about the tower company and whether lease payments were coming on time.   The landowner filled out the survey and added comments at the bottom that he didn't appreciate the rep's aggressive nature and angry demeanor.   Within a few days, the agent called him and apologized and the negotiations took a decidedly more friendly turn.    Perhaps that was because our client's tower is a very valuable tower.   Perhaps not.  Either way, if you are having a problem with your tower company rep and their negotiating tactics, fill out a survey or let the company know directly.   While the rep will and should continue to make threats about moving the tower, they should be able to do it in a less aggressive and cordial manner.  Both parties should remember that these negotiations are not personal, they are just business.  Treat the discussion as a business discussion, remove the personal aspect, and if you need help determining the business terms, consider contacting us.  

T-Mobile Sued for Alleged Unauthorized Attachment to High Tension Electric Tower

Utility pole cell tower

A few times a year, we are contacted by someone that believes that a wireless company attached equipment to an electric tower (not a small wood utility pole) on their property but that isn't getting compensation for it.  We just came across this news story where T-Mobile has a cell site attached to a utility pole and the landowners are not receiving any rent for the access to their property.  They are suing T-Mobile alleging that T-Mobile does not have the legal right to use the pole.  In the mid-2000's, there were a number of lawsuits, some class action, on this same issue.   In some, the landowners won and in others, the wireless carrier won.  

The key to whether a landowner should be compensated is based upon the language in the underlying utility easement for the electric towers.  The more specific the language is regarding what the easement is for, the better it is for the landowner.    If the easement language includes the right to provide telecommunication services or communication services, in many cases, that means that the utility company is within its rights to grant access to the wireless company without paying rent or getting landowner consent.   If the easement is specifically for the transmission of power, the wireless carrier may need your approval to be on the property which may mean additional rent.  

If you believe that the wireless carrier who has equipment on one of the electric towers on your property is improperly doing so, go to the clerk of court for your county or city and ask to see a copy of the utility easement across your property.   They are normally very helpful.   Get a copy and reach out to us.  While we cannot provide a legal interpretation of the easement language, we can advise whether you should spend the time and money to visit a local attorney.   If the attorney believes you should be compensated, we can help determine the appropriate amount for the lease or consent.   

City Says That If Mobilitie can Build a Tower in 2 Days, They Can Also Remove it in 2 Days.

You can't make this stuff up. Mobilitie allegedly erected a new mini-macro tower in Goliad, TX – which we posted about on LinkedIn previously. Subsequent to that, this story regarding Sprint approving a trial for Mobilitie to build mini-macro small cell towers without full regulatory compliance is found by reporters at Event-Driven.

In this case, Mobilitie claimed to the County they had all permits. City officials from Goliad investigate and find that Mobilitie did not build the tower in County limits but in the City. City officials then demand that Mobilitie remove the tower or they will do it for them. Mobilitie claims that they needed 2 weeks to do so- to which the City replied

“your firm constructed the tower over a two-day period, on a weekend. Surely, if you could install the tower in two days, you can dismantle it in the same time period.”

Not only did Mobilitie fail to build the tower outside City limits, they may have even failed to build it straight. As reported in the Goliad Advance-Guard, local homeowner

Harvey also claimed the tower is leaning to the north. Blueprints for the installation require a foundation 31 feet deep into the ground; Harvey who says he has had years of experience mounting poles, says a driller will hit bedrock at the 10-foot level.

County officials claim that this type of overnight tower erection was happening in other areas. See the quote below from the Advance-Guard.

“And it’s not just our community, it’s happening in San Patricio County as well,” City Alderman Nathan Lill told the group. “There’s list of other counties that have had the same issue with this exact same company. They’re building the towers at night and they’re not asking permission from anybody to do it.”

This isn't the only place where Mobilitie has been either fined or forced to remove what is alleged to be an improperly permitted tower- it has occurred in Baltimore, MD, and Denison, TX.

Sprint’s Really Odd Antenna Configuration Proposal

On one of our municipal client's towers, Sprint submitted a request to replace three existing antennas with new antennas that add 2.5GHz capability to their equipment.  The subject tower is in a difficult zoning jurisdiction and one where Sprint really doesn't have any other options.   Their collocation rent was on the higher side but not unreasonably so- and the three other wireless service providers were all paying the same or higher rent.  

Because the antennas were the same size or smaller, we did not recommend a rent increase for them.  However, Sprint was adding remote radio units and other equipment so we recommended a fairly nominal increase.  Rather than accept the newly proposed lease terms, Sprint instead asked whether they could replace the existing equipment on the tower with three of these antennas and get a reduction in rent. 

Sprint Proposed Canister Antennas
Possible Sprint Replacement Antennas

The proposed antennas are larger than the existing antennas, but Sprint appears to be wanting to go from 9 panels to 3 of these antennas.  (Not 3 of the canisters)  These panels will accommodate all of Sprint's spectrum bands but would seemingly limit their capacity and number of simultaneous users.   These appear more suitable for a mini-macro as opposed to a macrocell, but I would welcome any thoughts readers have regarding this topic.  

At the end of the day, we advised the client that the value of their tower is its unique location, not the specific loading that Sprint is placing or removing from the tower.   Obviously, there will be situations where a reduction in loading or equipment would justify a reduction in lease rate, but this isn't one of them.