5 Themes from WIA Show 2017

Graphic of sign showing two directions for tower companies and wireless carriers
Tower companies this way- wireless carriers this way.
The Wireless Infrastructure Show is the pre-eminent tower show in the US. The WIA who puts on the show consists of both tower companies and wireless carriers although it has mostly been run by the tower companies. The Show is a great show to get a chance to talk to and hear from people in the field building and operating towers and small cells. Here are the themes that we found most intriguing at the show.

1. Wireless Carriers and Tower Companies Have Increasingly Different Objectives

The dichotomy between what we heard at the show public events and what we heard directly from tower companies during the meeting is greater than we can remember. Whether related to how small cells fit in, the focus of municipal legislation, or how small and mid-size tower companies are now fulfilling the role that public tower companies did previously for wireless carriers, there is a growing divide between what were previously cohesive goals.

2. Tower Companies and Wireless Carriers Don't See Eye to Eye on Small Cell Legislation

While the WIA is supposedly an organization that works for both carriers and tower companies, the dissention between the two is most apparent in the interest both groups have in small cell infrastructure. The tower companies are quick (too quick in my opinion) to proclaim that no macro tower has ever been replaced by small cells all while intentionally failing to acknowledge the displaced Capex budgets for small cells and the declining collocation lease-up for new macrocells. The carriers secretly (or not so secretly) are pushing for small cell legislation that doesn't afford the same protections to public tower companies (or DAS companies) as it does to wireless carriers. As a result, the tower companies now have lobbyists and possibly PACs of their own to push for their own objectives but nowhere near as many lobbyists as AT&T and Verizon have retained.

3. There Are Signs of Tower Crew Shortage Already.

We asked this question over and over and received mixed responses. Some smaller tower companies (presumably those with long term relationships with vendors) indicated that they weren't having any issues. However, we heard from more than one contact that there were notable shortages especially on larger jobs. Considering that nominal repacking from the broadcast incentive auction has commenced and that AT&T hasn't yet released the flood gates of FirstNet activity, we will be watching this trend closely to determine how it impacts revenue expectations by the public tower companies and deployment activity by the wireless carriers. After closely examining the location of tower company towers in each of the 10 phases of repacking for a hedge fund client which tend to be backloaded over the next 3-year period, we suspect that the crew shortage will get worse.

4. The Impact (if not the number of towers actually relocated) of "Rip-n-replace" is Greater Than Expected.

Unsurprisingly, this really wasn't discussed at the public level at all- but 8 out of 10 of our private conversations dealt with the possibility that private tower companies are building new towers near existing towers to accommodate one or more wireless carriers relocating from the existing tower to reduce their rent. While we aren't seeing evidence of a substantive number of actual relocations as of yet, we have received an increasing number of inquiries from landowners who have been approached by one of the eight or so private tower companies who are reputed to be actively engaged in relocation efforts.

More importantly, for the first time, we heard specific and actionable efforts by the public tower companies to counter the possible threat, which tends to suggest that they are more concerned about the threat than they publicly acknowledge.

5. The Tower Industry is Optimistic About Modification Activity, but Pessimistic Regarding New Lease-Up Activity.

At least as it pertains to our checks, the tower industry seems outright gleeful about the increase in modification activity expected in the coming years. Between FirstNet, the Incentive Auction, and TMUS activity, towers should see nice revenue growth from modification activity in the next 2-3 years.

Left unsaid (or in some cases directly said) was the low expectations of collocation lease-up activity in the coming future. While FirstNet may result in some limited number of new collocations, it won't be material. Some of our tower company clients indicated that they have been seeing low lease-up while others are seeing more positive lease-up. There does appear to be a correlation between higher lease-up and to the urban/suburban/rural location of the towers. If you are looking for details on which tower companies have the most urban/suburban/rural towers and which tower companies have the fewest competing structures per tower amongst the tower companies, we recently completed an in-depth statistical analysis on this for a hedge fund client. Contact us for more details.

 

 

 

 

Sprint’s not-so-mini Mini-Macro Problem

Photo of Mobilitie Pole
Sprint-Mobilitie Mini-Macro- This One Was Permitted
Sprint’s partner, Mobilitie, allegedly building mini-macros without adequate regulatory approvals

Tickers: S, AMT, CCI, SBAC

Tags: Ken Schmidt, Wireless infrastructure

Background:

Sprint has dramatically underspent competitors over the past few years, arguing that its superior spectrum position, coupled with its densification efforts, allowed it to serve wireless customers at a fifth of the cost of VZ, ATT, and TMUS.

In our previous note “Sprint Behind the Small Cell 8-Ball (10.26.16)”, we surveyed the top 25 cities and found that Sprint was talking a lot about, but not actually deploying, mini-macros at scale. Subsequently, in “Sprint Shows Signs of Life on Small Cells (04.10.17)”, we noted that increased hiring activity by Sprint’s small cells partner Mobilitie indicated near- to intermediate-term construction activity and that we would watch construction efforts to gauge follow-through.  

Recent Checks: Who Cares About Permits

On May 2, 2017, Event-Driven, a wireless industry news site, published a report claiming that Sprint approved the construction of non-permitted sites. The report includes what appears to be an internal memo from Sprint’s Vice President of Network Development to area development managers regarding a trial enabling Mobilitie to “commence construction on new wireless sites without full regulatory compliance…”  See the Memo here.  While the memo appears authentic, we have not received independent confirmation.

Assuming the memo and its content are real, this memo jeopardizes the timing of Sprint’s mini-macro build-out and densification efforts. If Mobilitie is not following zoning and permitting regulations or is not submitting to the FCC for NEPA, SHPO, and Tribal Consultation as may be required for some new structures, this could increase the timeline for construction of new mini-macros by six or more months.

In the memo, Sprint appears to recognize this. Sprint cites that it was building 33 new mini-macros per week, but that during the trial, new builds dropped to six per week. The memo clarifies that, in the future, Sprint will require that Mobilitie follows all regulatory requirements, and concludes that the “reputational risk” to Sprint outweighs the benefits of proceeding with the trial.

Implications:

We see an increased risk to Sprint’s ability to deploy critical wireless infrastructure, and we reiterate the historically low levels of Capex Sprint has spent over the past few years as a risk to its long-term competitive position. Municipalities in which non-permitted construction occurred will scrutinize Sprint’s (and maybe the industry’s) entire infrastructure portfolio, potentially resulting in take-down orders, fines, and possibly litigation. Sprint may find that the “site count” for this permit-less trial is neutral, or even negative after reviews are conducted by local, state, and federal authorities.

Failure by Sprint and/or Mobilitie to get enough sites “on-air” could cascade in unexpected ways. For instance, Sprint may be forced to revise its network densification strategy to a more tower-centric or traditional-small-cell-centric strategy, benefiting the public TowerCos. Sprint may also be forced to rely upon leased fiber or dark fiber, which could change Opex or Capex respectively.

There are M&A implications as well. Now that the FCC quiet period has come to a close, there is a slight increase in reputational risk that could potentially drive an acquirer, or a target, toward a rival.  However, Sprint’s underspend on the Capex side makes their cash flow look more inviting potentially encouraging suitors. 

Zooming out, this memo, authentic or not, could hamstring industrywide efforts to reduce regulations related to small cell siting.  Perceptions that Mobilitie and Sprint (allegedly) deliberately circumvented municipal regulations imperils petitions to the FCC for relief from such regulations, and the industry’s desired characterization as a “utility” could take longer to achieve, slowing broader CapEx deployments.  

This note was originally published on 5/2/17 to our research clients.  If you are interested in getting more timely access to our research or would like to have a discussion on this note, please contact us.

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.  

FL State Representative pushes Small Cell Legislation while his City Issues RFI on Leasing City Property for Macrocells

In the Florida House of Representatives, a bill is being pushed through to significantly limit the control that a local municipality can exert over small cell installations.  The bill also limits the fees that a city may charge for access to municipal poles.   

In committee hearings, Rep. Nicholas Duran (D-Miami) said that the “City of Miami actually is the second worst city in connectivity—digital divide—in our state and in this country in many respects, so for me, this is a question of how can we break down this digital divide.”  While the goal of decreasing the digital divide is certainly an admirable one, one has to question how likely it is that small cells will be deployed in areas that don't already have sufficient wireless coverage.   Certainly, increasing capacity in underserved areas is beneficial.   However, the bill doesn't encourage or regulate where small cells are deployed, letting the industry decide on its own where they should go.   One has to question whether this specific bill will remedy the issues related to the digital divide, especially when considering how the wireless companies tend to deploy infrastructure in the areas where they profit most, not where lower income and disadvantaged people reside.  For an example of this, see this article about how AT&T deploys fiber differently to rich and poor areas.  

Simultaneously, Miami/Dade, the combined City/County government in which Rep. Duran resides issued an RFI for the management of City/County owned properties.   This specific RFI has been debated for years.   Various requests and meetings have been put forth to the wireless industry over that time frame with the City/County choosing not to move forward for various reasons.   We previously attended a meeting at Miami/Dade ourselves.  

Image of Miami Dade RFI Request
From Miami Dade Website
The irony here though is hard to miss.  First, in delaying this RFI/RFP process for years, Miami/Dade has missed out on a significant amount of interest in its property.  Secondly, if the Florida legislature is successful at reducing the fee structure for what municipalities can charge for access to their poles, Miami/Dade will not only get far less than it would have without such legislation but it will also reduce the effectiveness of the RFI.   Respondents will have less incentive to respond because there is less incentive for wireless companies to build macrocells on public property if they can use the ROW at virtually no cost.  Furthermore, with the fee cap, Rep. Duran's specific district and its taxpayers will generate less revenue while incurring additional incremental costs from having to manage and maintain poles that were built with taxpayer money but which are being used by private companies for profit.  

Obviously, this is a tradeoff that Rep. Duran and others could have legitimately decided was worth taking.  We aren't trying to criticize him or anyone else for making that choice- just trying to point out how complex the issues related to small cells and densification are for state legislators.   While the wireless industry has been successful at simplifying them to "you are voting against technological advancement", the issues aren't remotely that simple and there will be far-reaching but inherently local impacts for years to come.  

Mysterious Small Cell Pole Erected without Permit- Sounds like Mobilitie

In Penitas, Texas, what appears to be a new small cell pole was erected overnight near a busy thoroughfare.   There is a great news story about this in the video below.  

If you watch the video closely, you will see a small microwave dish at the top which suggests that this is a mini-macro for Sprint, possibly built by Mobilitie.   Six or so months ago, we had heard a rumor that Sprint had ordered a few thousand steel poles but because we couldn't get any other confirmation of this, we didn't go public with that information.   This specific pole looks like it was clearly pre-manufactured and cookie-cutter.  We haven't seen drawings or plan submittals that look like this though anywhere.  

In reviewing the video, it appears that the company installing it has not added panels to the top of the pole but that there are mounts for them.   There is an odd shroud that we surmise may hide additional mounts for other small panels possibly for collocation by other wireless providers.

Another indication that this may be Mobilitie is a post that someone from Mobilitie made on LinkedIn.  (I don't care to call attention to the individual- just the content of the message- he is just doing his job)  

"Went out to the field to kick off our Mobilitie build program. I had an awesome time out in the field again. I miss it from time to time but My office has been very nice to me. Any one in the SE or NE want to be apart of the build program shoot me a message or give me a call. I was able to train a crew and at the same time build 9 sites in 4 days. The money is good even with the rush of the program."

If this pole is Mobilitie's, we expect that this type of news story will occur over and over again in recent months as we wonder whether Mobilitie is attempting to get these poles up and standing prior to the FCC proposed rule-making that will be discussed at the April 20th FCC meeting but not enacted for months.   Our read of the tea leaves is that the FCC will not be granting favorable treatment to 50' and taller poles and will likely require that they meet local zoning requirements.  If this is the case, Mobilitie may be trying to get poles standing in order to avoid potential zoning requirements that may be required in the future for such poles.  We have to wonder whether the entity that constructed this pole submitted and received approval from SHPO/NEPA. The news story says that there was no permit pulled for this pole installation. 

Further potential evidence of this is that Mobilitie posted 170+ jobs across the country just over a week ago- which included construction and network related jobs.  

If our suspicions are correct, there will be many news stories like this in the coming months.  New not-so-small cell poles will be erected "overnight" and municipalities will be left trying to figure out who built them.  

 

 

Verizon Appears to be Rivada Partner in FirstNet Bid

Capture

In examining the summary of the FirstNet/Rivada litigation as prepared by RCR Wireless, there may be confirmation that Verizon was the silent "carrier" partner of Rivada.  Specifically, in the recently made public documents, the court indicated "the first set of deficiencies related to ‘Rivada’s lack of financial stability, capacity, and required funding'” — including the riskiness of Rivada Mercury’s proposal to monetize the excess Band 14 spectrum through a wholesale marketplace, which required robust Band 4 device support in order to be adopted by non-FirstNet customers".   Band 4 consists of the AWS-1 frequencies acquired from SpectrumCo (cable company consortium) by Verizon in 2011.   In other words, Rivada intended to monetize the FirstNet spectrum by adding it to Band 4 (AWS-1) capable phones.   

While many people have suspected that Verizon was working with Rivada, we haven't seen any other evidence of it.  Of course, it is possible that another wireless carrier with AWS-1 (T-Mobile) could have been the partner, but we strongly doubt their participation given the substantial cost of building out a nationwide network to meet the coverage objectives of FirstNet.   Alternatively, perhaps Rivada was hoping for Verizon's participation- but based upon rumors we had heard previously, the discussions were farther along than that.  

Six Sectors for T-Mobile

First 6-sector cell site we have seen from T-Mobile.   Most cell sites have 3-sectors.   The additional sectors are added for capacity- note the LTE and AWS/PCS designations.  

6 Sector T-Mobile Site
A screen clip from a construction drawing of a six sector cell site from T-Mobile.

AT&T Wins FirstNet but TowerCos are the Real Winners

FirstNet Award to AT&T Confirmed: Checks Confirm Amendment Activity before Official Announcement

Tickers: T, AMT, CCI, SBAC

Tags: Ken Schmidt, Wireless Infrastructure

In Examining FirstNet Assumptions 12/9/2016, we reviewed the likelihood that AT&T would win the FirstNet RFP and the impact on TowerCos, Equipment OEMs, and FiberCos. As the time, the FirstNet award was stalled pending litigation over Rivada's claim that it was improperly excluded as a bidder. No timeline for resolution was available even as 2017 models were being fine-tuned across the Street. In our AT&T FirstNet Revisited note from 3/21/2017- we correctly suggested that the award would happen this week- which it did today.

In our previous notes, we pulled forward our expectations for AT&T's deployments of FirstNet-capable equipment by 1-2 quarters. In general, FirstNet site modification work is a positive for the TowerCos, and their 2017 guidance (given on Q4 calls) does not include FirstNet.

 

FirstNet Contract Review:

In review, AT&T gains a long-term contract to utilize 20MHz of 700 MHz spectrum to accompany the up to 5-10MHz of the 700MHz spectrum they already have across approximately two-thirds of the US. Carriers prefer low band spectrum for its ability to penetrate buildings and because it propagates further than the higher bands.

AT&T also gets $6.5B in cash from the Federal government to facilitate the development of the first responder and public safety network. This amount could be less if not all states opt into AT&T's plan, which they are entitled to do, provided they build their own statewide Radio Access Network subject to the provisions of the Act.

Lastly, AT&T also gets a "sticky" market of 3 to 5 million public safety users, which is a market that AT&T has historically underserved.

AT&T has indicated they expect to spend over $40 billion over the next 5 years to build out FirstNet. (We believe that this number includes other non-FirstNet related modifications).

 

Buildout Timeline:

Under the RFP, AT&T is required to develop a public safety network on a certain schedule. Assuming an April 2017 award date, here is how the network will be deployed:

  • October 2017: States Opt-In or Opt-Out
  • April 2018: 20% of coverage to be built out
  • April 2019: 60% of coverage to be built out
  • April
    2020: 80% of coverage to be built out
  • April 2021: 95% of coverage to be built out
  • April 2022: 100% of coverage to be built out

AT&T will be required to develop and obtain approval for suitable devices, applications, and back-end operations and infrastructure to enable FirstNet capabilities. Initially, AT&T can use its network and devices but will eventually need to develop FirstNet-specific devices and infrastructure per the requirements of the RFP. Furthermore, AT&T will need to pay FirstNet at least $5.6B over the 25-year term of the contract with annual fees starting at $80M and escalating from there.

    

Implications for TowerCos

As far back as December, we indicated that TowerCos would benefit from the award, though we cautioned that there are three buckets of sites: some AT&T sites which already have antennas capable of transmitting/receiving in the 700MHz band, where there would modifications that do not justify a rent increase or amendment; some that require antenna change outs and additional remote radio units, and some that require additional antennas and remote radio units.  In the second and third bucket, the TowerCos come out ahead.  In total, we estimate the number of AT&T macrocells that will be touched over 5 years will likely exceed 75% or more of AT&T's total site count.  

Regarding the timing of the amendment activity, our checks show that AT&T was submitting applications for modifications at the end of 2016 that include equipment suitable for FirstNet—months before today's FirstNet announcement.

 

Implications for Landowners and Rooftop Owners

Landowners with AT&T towers on their property, for the most part, won't receive any additional rent due to FirstNet activity.   If AT&T ends up hardening sites by adding generators or backup power, there may be some lease area expansions which could yield additional rent.  Building owners with AT&T rooftop leases may see additional revenue as AT&T needs to modify or expand existing equipment and antennas on the roof.  For those building owners who previously agreed to AT&T's E911 language that they were inserting into their leases that states that AT&T is allowed to make changes to sites if needed for E911 purposes, there may not be the opportunity to charge additional rent for changes even if they exceed the current footprint of the equipment area.

 

Minor Boost for Rip-n-Replace Towers

Ironically, a subset of activities related to FirstNet deployment could cannibalize existing TowerCo revenue. As discussed in our Rip-n-Replace note of 3/22/17 where we discuss the increasing willingness of wireless carriers to relocate equipment from existing towers, the more that AT&T modifies or adds equipment, and particularly in cases where there are changes to the structural loading on an existing tower, the more an adjacent alternative site may make sense.

The more equipment that AT&T needs to add, the greater the structural loading on the tower. The greater the structural loading, the more likely that structural modifications to the tower will be required. The more that structural modifications are needed, the higher the pass-through to AT&T. The higher pass-through, the greater the incentive for AT&T to relocate to a newly built adjacent tower with surplus structural capacity.

 

Want to Know More?

We have strong opinions on who stands to gain from the FirstNet award to AT&T.  Give us a call– we can break down which equipment manufacturers, which construction and engineering companies, and which tower companies are best positioned for upside from FirstNet.

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.)