What’s Happened So Far in Wireless in 2017?

As we look back over the first half of 2017, there has been much non-activity on the merger front. Many people (myself included) expected greater merger and acquisition activity but other than a few fiber related transactions, nothing material has transpired. Sprint and T-Mobile are still separate companies, and DISH has not merged with or been acquired by anyone. So here are the most important stories or events of the year on a carrier by carrier and tower company by tower company basis so far.

 

1. AT&T is awarded FirstNet, but benefits still haven’t flowed down to tower companies, original equipment manufacturers, and landowners. There has been much discussion, but there haven’t been any substantive modification or new build activity as a result by AT&T. In short, we are all just waiting for the project to start in earnest. However, when it starts, it will start not with a whimper…

 

2. In the more of the same category, Verizon is refocusing its efforts on reducing leasing costs. So far, we have seen Verizon choosing not to join the very public and vocal opposition to traditional tower leasing models as AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint. However, they have hired Accenture to help them use standard renegotiation efforts like those from Md7 or Blackdot to try to renegotiate leases. What Verizon has done very effectively is push for 2% annual escalation or less in their new leases. The benefit of this change may be tempered though by their site acquisition agent’s willingness to increase the base lease rate to adjust for the reduction in escalation. We also see increased activity by Verizon to build their towers next to existing public tower company towers to avoid collocating on those towers.

 

3. While this is not that much of a surprise, T-Mobile has been killing it, and their network performance is increasing. Churn is historically low, cost of services is low, subscriber growth is high, and they have started building out 600MHz. Wouldn’t want to be one of the other wireless carriers trying to compete with the T-Mobile marketing juggernaut- T-Mobile gets away with snarky while when their competitors try it, it comes across as desperate (Sprint) or stodgy (AT&T and Verizon). We already see increased activity from T-Mobile modifications and new towers, and they are not even really started yet.

 

4. Sprint deserves kudos for their turnaround especially on their cost cutting having demonstrated profitability for the first quarter in the last 13 or so. Of course, they may have had more to cut than the other wireless carriers. Sprint also deserves accolades for their stream of quarterly earnings calls where they try to explain how they can continue to underspend their competitors quarter after quarter, year after year, with new technological innovations like HPUE, MagicBox, Spark, and Mini-macros. (Hint- they cannot as evidenced by Sprint’s Capex increase last quarter of over 100% from the previous quarter. Expect to see similar or higher Capex in this quarter from Sprint and perhaps even higher in the last quarter of the year). Equally enjoyable is the timing of all of the leaks related to potential mergers and acquisitions of Sprint that somehow happen to occur just before a bad earnings report or after a bad news story comes out. (Not saying that Sprint leaked the stories, just pointing out the odd but consistent timing). The good news with Sprint is that it is never boring. I do have to commend Sprint on their Double the Price pop-up stunt- snarky worked in this case.

 

5. All four carriers have gone Unlimited. Following T-Mobile’s lead, the other wireless carriers each have moved to unlimited plans. As a result, overall wireless service revenue has declined. This “race to the bottom” appears to have stabilized. Before you feel too bad for the wireless carriers, remember that each of them generated over 25% EBITDA (profit) margins this past quarter from wireless and Verizon has one of its best quarters ever regarding profit margin. If revenue is declining, how can profit margin be increasing, you might ask? The wireless carriers have been squeezing contractors and vendors to reduce their operating expenditures all while increasing the efficiency of their wireless networks. Despite attractive profit margins, expect further cost cutting and a renewed emphasis on negotiating better leases with landowners and tower companies as shown in the articles on our blog below.

 

6. Crown Castle has had an active year purchasing fiber, announcing the acquisition of both Wilcon and Lightower Fiber Networks and completing the acquisition of FPL Fibernet. Crown sees a vision of a small cell world where fiber is critical to being able to persuade wireless carriers to place their small cell infrastructure on Crown fiber and poles. We would agree with them but would temper expectations slightly due to the next point below and due to efforts by wireless carriers to deploy their own fiber networks.

 

7. The wireless carriers collectively have been successful at convincing eleven states to pass bills that limit local review of proposed small cells, prohibit the forced collocation on existing poles, and reduce the lease rate that cities can charge for attachment rights to existing poles or to the public right of way. Some of the most populous states (Florida, Texas) have these bills in effect or about to go into effect. We hear of increased litigation already filed or planned to oppose these statutes, so expect more controversy on this legislation in coming months. Conceivably, these statutes will reduce the number of small cells leased on private property and could in isolated situations allow for termination of existing macrocells. In the eleven states that have passed such legislation, expect to see small cells and new poles popping up across urban areas in the very near future.

 

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.  

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.  

Towers and Tenant Collocation Rent Trends: 2016-Beyond

In their article “Tower Rents May See Pressure from Carriers”, AGL Magazine cites three sources to justify their overreaching conclusion that cell tower collocation rents may soon see downward pressure. Incorporating statements from Ron Bizick II of Tarpon Towers, Jennifer Fritzche of Wells Fargo Securities, and Alex Gellman of Vertical Bridge, AGL surmises that the traditional tower development business model is transforming. Following is SITA’s response to that assertion. [Read more…]

Sprint’s Network Overhaul- Radical Impact on AMT, CCI, and SBAC?

The website Re/code posted an unconfirmed article on Friday re: Sprint’s Next Generation Network which stated “sources familiar with the initiative said Sprint plans to cut its network costs by relocating its radio equipment from tower space it has leased from Crown Castle and American Tower to spots on government owned properties which costs much less.” [Read more…]

Our Complimentary Website: Cell Tower Info Has Been Revamped

Cell Tower Info was created in 2005 and has recently been updated with a new skin, new features and more information for clients and cell tower landlords.

If you’re interested in the cell tower leasing process – from acquisition to deployment and leasing, please take a look!
At Cell Tower Info, you can learn tips about: [Read more…]

Good news for rural landowners: more cell sites

Sprint adds 15 rural carriers to its Rural Roaming Network, an initiative that originally launched during the first half of 2014 with 12 regional wireless providers.  Currently, Sprint has expanded its LTE footprint across 565,000 square miles in 27 states.  Sprint is also involved in a Small Market Alliance with NetAmerica, which will provide rural carriers with access to Sprint’s Spark Network using 800 Mhz and 1.9 GHz spectrum through reciprocal roaming agreements.  In fact, Sprint’s Chairman, Masayoshi Son has offered financial assistance to regional carriers who seek to build-out their rural LTE coverage during this year’s CCA event.  Of interest is the fact that 83% of the U.S. population resides in suburban or rural areas, which are almost exclusively served by tower-based macro sites.  All in all, this is good news for rural landowners who are currently party to cellular leases (as well as those who are not but would like to be), since we expect to see significant cell-site builds and collocation opportunities in rural markets as demand continues to skyrocket.

How COAS Can Benefit from Cell Site Leases

In the United States, there are over 300,000 cell sites, encompassing those that are located on cell towers, other structures (like telephone poles and water towers), and rooftops.  Ken Schmidt, President of Steel in the Air, estimates that in Florida, there are between 500 – 750 cellular leases tied to rooftops located on condominium buildings. [Read more…]