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 The tower companies are quick (too quick in my opinion) to proclaim that no macro tower has ever been replaced by small cells all while intentionally failing to acknowledge the displaced Capex budgets for small cells and the declining collocation lease-up for new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.

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.

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.  

Small Cells Aren’t Like a Pizza Box

Pizza Box Small Cells
Number of Pizza Boxes that Fit in 6 Cubic Feet or 28 Cubic Feet

WHAT THE INDUSTRY SAYS

The wireless industry has been pushing the fiction that small cells are the size of a pizza box.   Here is a quote in a Wireless Week article– 

"Americans will benefit tremendously from innovations like 5G and the Internet of Things, which require more small cell facilities – often the size of a pizza box – to build a denser network," CTIA's assistant vice president of regulatory affairs Scott Bergmann said. "Today’s action by the FCC recognizes the minimal impact of these facilities, but there is more work to be done. We must streamline infrastructure policies at all levels of government so that wireless providers can rapidly deliver the next generation of products and services to consumers.”  (emphasis added)

Furthermore, as reported by Wireless Estimator here,  "In the CTIA presentation, the trade group said that networks can now be extended on (sic) common structures like street lights and utility poles and that there will be 300,000 “pizza box-sized small cells needed in [the] next 3-4 years.”

WHAT THE INDUSTRY ACTUALLY WANTS

While some small cells are the size of a pizza box- many aren't.   The industry clearly doesn't think so either despite their public pronouncement otherwise.   In the newly proposed state legislation in 20+ states, there is language that allows the wireless industry to install up to 6 cubic feet of antennas and up to 28 cubic feet of equipment on each pole.  For example, see this language from the recently passed Virginia statute.   

"Small cell facility" means a wireless facility that meets both of the following qualifications: (i) each antenna is located inside an enclosure of no more than six cubic feet in volume, or in the case of an antenna that has exposed elements, the antenna and all of its exposed elements could fit within an imaginary enclosure of no more than six cubic feet; and (ii) all other wireless equipment associated with the facility is cumulatively no more than 28 cubic feet in volume, or facilities comprised of such higher limits as established by the Federal Communication Commission. The following types of associated equipment are not included in the calculation of equipment volume: electric meter, concealment, telecommunications demarcation boxes, ground-based enclosures, back-up power systems, grounding equipment, power transfer switches, cut-off switches, and vertical cable runs for the connection of power and other services."

In other words, the industry likes to present to municipalities that small cells are the size of a singular pizza box because it makes a compelling story.   However, the want to give their members the right to install substantially larger equipment than would fit in a single pizza box.   

Please feel free to use this image without attribution.   Also, for another good representation of what 28 cubic feet represents- see http://wireless.blog.law/2017/04/22/california-sb-649-big-lie-small-cells/.

 

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.  

 

 

Top 10 Things the Wireless Industry Doesn’t Tell You about Small Cells

By Ken Schmidt, Omar Masry, and Rick Edwards

Are you a homeowner who's recently received a notice indicating that a new small cell antenna is going to be erected on or near your property? Or a lawmaker who has received one of the industry's new opinion papers about small cell antenna regulations? Or an FCC Commissioner who is considering small cell rule-making? Before you start citing from or buying into the pretty pictures and bright-eyed economic projections in the opinion papers below, you should know that these industry-commissioned studies do not tell the whole story:

    1. CTIA – Enabling the Wireless Networks of Tomorrow

    2. CTIA – How 5G Can Help Municipalities Become Vibrant Smart Cities

    2. WIA – Small Cells on Pole Facilities

What's wrong with them, you ask? Plenty. Here are the top 10 things the wireless industry doesn't tell you about small cell antennas:

#1: Despite the wireless industry's calls for collocation using shared infrastructure, in practice, carriers apply for individual small cells instead of shared infrastructure like DAS.

Small cells are standalone individual cells that can be installed separately. They're like miniature cell towers but without the tower. Like towers, a small cell requires both an antenna and equipment. Unlike towers though, the wireless industry likes to place the transmission equipment on the utility or other support structures. In effect, this means that the installation of small cells must either increase the visual blight of the pole or increase the diameter of the pole if the equipment is put inside.

Distributed Antenna Systems, in contrast, typically require less substantial infrastructure attached to each pole and can be more easily made to resemble street lights and signs (like the examples in #2). Common equipment can be placed within a centralized hub conveniently located underground or outside of view. Whereas small cells are single user installations, carriers can share DAS nodes. Multiple wireless service providers can share a DAS node, and multiple frequency bands (Carriers) can be facilitated on each node. This reduces the total number of sites needed and makes each site more attractive because most of the transmission equipment sits in a shared offsite DAS hub.

Given the benefits of DAS, you might wonder why the industry would prefer to build small cells instead of a constructing a DAS? There are 5 reasons – some of which are legitimately problematic for wireless carriers and some of which just require increased investment or time but aren't beneficial to the bottom line.

Reason 1: Each wireless provider has different objectives and may not need the same locations.

Reason 2: Each wireless provider has different deployment times and requiring DAS may force one carrier to wait if others are not ready.

Reason 3: DAS systems cost more because they're designed for the requirements of the most advanced user. So if carrier A needs feature X, even if carrier B doesn't, then the system will include feature X.

Reason 4: DAS systems require a concentrated, coordinated effort and someone to lead it.

Reason 5: Small cells are easier to deploy. DAS applications are reviewed in total – meaning that an objection to any part of the DAS application holds up the entire request.

The result: Providers submit applications for small cells even in downtown, urban core areas where DAS makes more sense. In some cases, providers apply for permits on adjacent poles where it's obvious that a DAS system would reduce visual clutter. Or even submit for new poles adjacent to other light/utility poles of similar height to avoid paying the rate schedules published by municipalities.

The map below shows the actual number of small cell application locations within the City of Houston by four different wireless entities. In a dense urban area like this – why not propose DAS nodes that all entities can share and decrease the number and impact of these facilities on the community?

The wireless industry needs to actually collocate rather than just talk about collocation. Furthermore, the FCC and cities themselves should mandate collocation when multi-carrier small cells are technologically feasible.

#2. The wireless industry associations want standardized federal, state, and local rules but don't even standardize themselves.

The wireless industry demands standardization of state and local government laws related to the erection of small cells. Their opinion papers suggest that without standardization, wireless applicants will be hit with a patchwork of wireless siting regulations. So they're putting forth a multi-pronged approach:

    1. Distributing Industry-Friendly Sample Ordinances

    2. Lobbying Heavily at State Level (see ALEC)

    3. Submitting a Petition for Relief to the FCC (see Mobilitie)

    4. Lobbying Heavily at the Federal Level

The wireless industry alleges — without providing any quantitative analysis — that most municipalities are applying costly, antiquated macrocell regulations to small cell applications. While many smaller municipalities do not have small cell policies in place at this time, that is because the wireless carriers aren't building many small cells in smaller towns and villages. But many larger municipalities (and those where 90% of small cell deployment are occurring) have begun to implement small cell regulations or will do shortly.

At the same time, the wireless industry's applicants can't even submit consistent small cell applications to their municipalities. It's blatantly hypocritical. For example, some cities report receiving location maps showing new small cells in the middle of ponds or on footbridges or in areas that are under another city or county's jurisdiction. Some applicants are not even submitting site-specific applications – instead submitting the same drawing over and over. If the wireless industry believes that standardizing the permitting process is necessary, they should be willing to standardize their own small cell antenna configurations and requests as well. All applications should provide for and include the same information so that the municipality does not have to ask multiple times for the applicant to complete the basic information. Every application should include a structural analysis wet-stamped by a state licensed engineer demonstrating that the new pole or existing pole is structurally sufficient for the current loading. Plans should include where power is coming from and how power will be metered, or better yet be subject to an unmetered wireless rate or utilize wireless smart metering

The WIA and CTIA should encourage standardized applications and requirements among their member constituents. But we believe their approach should not just consist of lobbying states, the FCC, and local governments. These organizations should work towards drafting common application requirements and best practices for their constituent members. They should then discipline or reprimand those members that do not follow such practices. Most importantly, wireless industry associations should focus on assisting member entities in developing and using shared infrastructure.

 

#3. What the industry installs looks vastly different than what they say is possible.

You may remember this article that went viral where Buzzfeed compared the fast food company photos of their food vs. what the consumer actually received.

Similarly, the wireless industry's glossy pictures show an idealized implementation that is far different from reality. Their reports showcase integrated poles with small cells contained within or Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) nodes with an off-site equipment hub. These appear slim and attractive (relatively speaking). However, when these same wireless carriers or small cell companies submit the actual drawings and applications, the installations do not look anything like those pretty glossy pictures. Or, after they install the attractive poles, they bloat the view with additional equipment, creating a visual blight.

For example, below are photos promoted in the WIA Small Cell document. (Note these pictures are DAS nodes- not Small Cells – see #4 below)

Compare those to photos of actual small cell installations. They are nothing like the photos shown in wireless industry propaganda.

      

The reason for this is twofold: First, the industry likes to show pretty photos of DAS nodes because they are actual possibilities, even though the wireless carriers and tower companies are increasingly abandoning them. Wireless carriers are instead building small cells which usually have more equipment on the pole than DAS's central hub. Second, in many cases, the applicant omit to mention a part of the equipment that's to be mounted near or on the pole either because they're rushed or because they don't want to answer objections. The municipality is left holding the bag – inspecting each constructed small cell in order to confirm whether the applicant exceeded what they were authorized to install. Don't believe this actually happens? Look below to see what the industry submitted as a photo simulation versus what was eventually installed.

  

 

#4.  Once a site is erected, they can go back and increase its size ad nauseam provided that the changes do not exceed federal standards.

Once a small cell or DAS node is attached to a pole, the wireless carriers have the right under Section 6409(a) of the Middle-Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act to expand their equipment. In other words, once a site is built, municipalities have little power to restrict further expansions of the pole's small cell antenna equipment if the applicants stay within the limits of 6409(a). Moreover, wireless companies can request to expand an unlimited number of times. So even if a small cell starts off looking small and svelte – it could be expanded in size immediately without the municipality being able to stop the expansion. And this can happen over and over again.

A GIF showing steps in a tower being expanded
How a small cell can be expanded into a mini cell tower.

Below is a photo showing what a small cell looks like after multiple expansions.

 

#5: The industry claims that wireless development will not occur without major policy changes. But in fact, wireless development has occurred and will continue to occur even without those changes.

Historically, the industry has made the same argument over and over again: that they will not be able to deploy infrastructure if wireless siting laws aren't loosened. They suggest that most any regulation that slows down wireless deployment limits technological advancement. The industry puts out derisive blacklists of cities and counties that one or more wireless company believes make it difficult or expensive to deploy wireless infrastructure. They label these cities as technologically backward and lobby decision makers to convince them that their city will not grow with such technological restrictions. For example, see this quote from Gary Jabara of Mobilitie about municipalities or counties who aren't receptive to Mobilitie's proposals to erect 120' mini-macro small cells in their city or county.

Nonetheless, even in expensive markets with incriminating reviews like the one above, small cell deployment still occurs. Wireless companies still build towers or even find private locations for rooftop cell sites. A quick examination of Verizon or AT&T's coverage map will show very few holes in urban or suburban areas.

Furthermore, in most states (35 or more) wireless companies have access to utility poles which are subject to pole attachment rates prescribed by the federal government. These pole access rates are fairly reasonable; they are typically less than $500/year per pole. However, working with the utilities can be time-consuming, which is why the wireless industry is pushing for easier access to municipal poles. Isn't it odd that wireless carriers claim to be utilities but aren't actually using utility poles?

Even in markets like Baltimore, MD where the small cell rates are somewhat high compared to other US cities, Baltimore is still receiving small cell applications at a pace comparable to communities with closer-to-average rental rates. In other words, while the industry claims that higher rates impede technological advancement for a city, the reality is that wireless carriers still build small cell sites and many of them. While small cell deployment would likely happen quicker with revisions to regulation and cheaper access to municipal structures, make no doubt about it, the development would occur either way.

 

#6: The industry labels any request for cost reimbursement or rents by a municipality as a "money grab" all while the industry itself is generating $60 billion in profit per quarter.

We participated in a meeting between one city and members of one of the national wireless trade groups. The trade group decried the city's rent requests for access to taxpayer-funded infrastructure as a "money grab." Meanwhile, each of the wireless carriers has generated 20% profit margins or better in recent years – with at least one generating margins over 40%. The Big 4 wireless carriers alone are generating nearly $60 billion a year or more in EBITDA margin while the wireless industry combined generated $85 billion.

To argue that municipalities are money grabbing by charging a reasonable price for access to publicly-funded infrastructure by for-profit entities is disingenuous at best.

If one assumes the industry is constructing 20,000 new small cell antennas a year, even if each pole fee was $3,000/year, the wireless industry AS A WHOLE would only lose out on $60 million or less than .1% of their annual profit. Yes, you read that right,- less than 1/10th of 1 percent of their annual profit.
To put in perspective, Verizon and AT&T alone spent half that amount on lobbying alone in 2016. (see Open Secrets for AT&T and for Verizon)

These arguments seem even more duplicitous when you see the headlines put out by the wireless industry that extol the tremendous revenue opportunities from 5G and other advancements. For example:

The Qualcomm "survey," says the 5G future will support up to 22 Million Jobs and $12 trillion dollars of goods and services.

Cisco says 50 billion things will connect to the internet. Read this article on why the hype on the number of connected devices is overblown.

CTIA citing an Accenture analysis suggests that 5G stands to create 3 million jobs in the US while yielding investment of $275 billion and encouraging GDP growth of $500 billion.

Simply put, the industry has every right to attempt to negotiate with municipalities for cheaper access to taxpayer funded and maintained municipal poles. But if they insist on making it about money, we believe those same taxpayers and municipalities should be prepared to point out the hypocrisy in their claims.

 

#7: The wireless industry wants to pay less for their small cell permit applications yet still receive faster review timelines from understaffed cities and counties.

Historically, we estimate that most cities rarely received more than 50 applications for new wireless sites per year from 2000-2015. Even in the boom years of 2008-2010, cities may have received just 150 applications for new wireless facilities. Contrast that to today: we have confirmed that the City of Houston received over 700 applications in 2016 alone for small cell infrastructure.

On the one hand, the wireless industry politely (or not so politely) asks for a quick turnaround on small cell antenna applications (complaining to the FCC and state representatives when they don't get it) but then on the other begrudges municipalities for charging fees to review the applications. For those of you not entrenched in the minutia of municipal red tape, these requests for the use of infrastructure or placement of equipment are rarely identical from one application to the next. Some companies are very good at drafting thorough and complete applications, but most are not. No matter what size the project is, the items to review in each application are the same. Each site still needs to be reviewed for structural, electrical, and physical safety.

Without standardization by the industry, these applications can't be reviewed easily. This, in turn, increases the cost to the municipality for reviewing such applications. The industry wants the best of all worlds – to submit hundreds of applications simultaneously, have those applications reviewed quickly regardless of their quality, and pay as little as possible for the city to review them.

Some members of the wireless industry have suggested that cities do not need to review the applications thoroughly as the wireless entities already do so internally. For proof of how ineffectively self-regulation works in the wireless industry, look no further than the 2007 Malibu Canyon fire which was caused by utility poles that were physically overloaded with telecommunication company antennas and equipment. Apart from safety concerns, the proliferation of poorly designed small cells can also degrade historic districts and draw noise complaints from neighbors when a carrier with loud cooling fans is mounted on a pole a few feet from a bedroom window.

 

#8: The wireless industry extols the wide-ranging benefits of the Internet of Things (IOT), smart cities, and self-driving cars, but fails to mention that many of these benefits can be obtained using current LTE-based technologies.

First, let's be clear that there are absolutely many wide-ranging benefits from 5G and small cell densification. Truly mobile IOT won't happen without wireless industry investment. No other private or public entity can or will develop sufficient wireless infrastructure in the US to enable pervasive low latency communications. Without wireless industry investment, remote control of sensitive machinery or vehicles simply won't occur. Self-driving autonomous cars will be possible but without the gains in safety and efficiency that would occur from a truly smart network of connected cars.

However, you can get the benefits of low bandwidth, non-essential IOT or smart city sensors and functions without small cells at all (or at least with fewer of them). The CTIA (Accenture) study above cites the benefits using smart meters and smart lighting. These include traffic management systems, public transportation location-based tracking, real-time public parking information, and gun-shot recognition. These are all benefits to be gained from IOT. However, neither Accenture nor the wireless industry makes any attempt to quantify or distinguish which smart city and IOT initiatives require wireless industry involvement and which don't.

Furthermore, these studies don't even remotely acknowledge which IOT benefits can happen on today's LTE networks versus those that need more robust densification of sites to occur. The wireless industry leads you to believe that you need the innovations they want to sell you to get any of these advances of the future. That is inaccurate.

 

#9: While the wireless industry claims densification of small cells is needed to enable smart city and IOT functions, they don't tell you that mobile video is the primary use of small cells both now and in the future.

Cisco, in its 2017 Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, indicated that video currently makes up 60% of mobile data traffic. Moreover, they forecast that three-quarters of the world's mobile data traffic will be video by 2021. Ericsson's own study states that mobile video traffic represents 55% of LTE/5G data traffic now, but is expected to grow to 95% (yes- 95%) of mobile data traffic by 2021.

Cisco states further that 50 billion IOT devices will be connected to the internet within 5 years. However, only 1.5 billion of these devices will have cellular connectivity. We have seen forecasts from other sources that IOT mobile data use will grow to 8% of total network mobile data use by 2021. In other words, IOT functionality only drives less than 10% of the bandwidth need for small cell densification.

This raises the question: how many small cells are necessary to enable Smart City and IOT initiatives versus how many are really needed to densify networks for the next generation of fixed wireless to home and mobile video?  For further information on why mobile and fixed wireless video is so important to AT&T and Verizon, see this article on the wireless industries efforts to compete with the cable companies.

To be clear, we aren't suggesting that mobile video or fixed wireless are inconsequential. Without the revenue generated from mobile and fixed wireless video, the wireless industry would not have the incentive to invest as much Capex in their wireless networks to enable some of the truly amazing IOT and smart city use cases – especially those that require low latency or secure and ultra-reliable communication.

We are, though, suggesting that any indication by the wireless industry that 5G and small cell densification is primarily about IOT and smart city functions is a half-truth at best. The reality is that small cells densification is more about paid consumer and commercial video than it is about IOT or smart cities.

 

#10.  The industry is willing to push select information about small cells but not willing to respond to substantive questions from municipalities.

Before a recent meeting began between one city and 20+ representatives of wireless and tower companies, each side exchanged questions. The wireless industry provided 30-40 questions to the city, and the city provided a list of 15-20 questions to the industry. The city's questions were fairly straightforward:

What do the wireless providers see in terms of other cities that require rental payments?

How many small cells does the industry contemplate installing in the city over the next 5 years?

What type of infrastructure/antennas does the wireless industry expect to need on the poles?

The city responded to all the industry's questions with substantive detail. In return, only ONE company responded to the city's questions. And most of those responses were cop-outs – claims that they couldn't answer due to competitive concerns. CTIA/WIA provided a glossy presentation that discussed all of the overarching benefits of IOT and 5G, but failed, for the most part, to provide any substantive and direct answers to the questions posed by the city itself.

At the end of the day, the wireless industry wanted to poke holes in the city's effort, but was unwilling to answer important questions that would have helped the city review and revise its own policy.

How can any city reasonably be expected to plan and prepare adequately for small cell infrastructure when the wireless industry continues to provide limited substantive information?

So Where Does this Leave Us?

Municipalities need to realize that wireless investment in small cells should be encouraged and reasonably managed and that doing so requires investment in staff and resources. They can no longer put their heads in the sand because it isn't a question of if, but of when and of how many small cells are coming. Reactionary policies and moratoriums almost always rushed and neither encourage thoughtful technological expansion nor protect the constituents.

Wireless carriers, tower companies, and industry associations need to provide better substantive guidance to their member constituents including model applications and construction/design criteria. They should truly encourage shared infrastructure use especially in dense areas where multiple providers want access to existing poles. These groups and companies should also be more forthright in their marketing materials and in answering legitimate questions and concerns by public entities.

We, as advisors to landowners and municipalities, will continue to help educate the public about the small cell leases and policies. Most landowners and municipalities are underrepresented and ill-informed when it comes to responding to the wireless industry's requests and/or demands. We hope that by highlighting the top 10 things the industry doesn't tell you about small cells, that you can better decide how to accomplish your goals. That small cell deployment will not be allowed to grow unchecked and unabated by an uninformed populace.

 

Comcast Wireless 2.0: This time it could actually work.

Image of cell phone with video playing
Mobile Video by Comcast
Implications for TowerCos and Construction Companies

Tickers: CMCSA, COMM, MTZ, DY, CCI, AMT, SBAC

Tags: Ken Schmidt, Wireless infrastructure

Background:

Analysts have been speculating about the winners of the FCC spectrum auction and the implications of those wins for the better part of a year. With the auction coming to a close and an announcement expected in the coming weeks, we took a look at the implications of Comcast’s (Nasdaq: CMCSA) expected entry into the wireless market.

On 4/6/2017, Comcast announced their Xfinity Wireless plans.  Much has been written on the details of those plans so we will not rehash them here other than to say that Comcast doesn't appear to be building its own network and that the plans are primarily intended to prevent Comcast customers from churning to AT&T or Verizon.   

Timing:

The FCC’s broadcast incentive auction was finalized on March 30, 2017. The FCC is expected to publicly announce the winning bidders sometime in the latter half of April. 

Expectations:

We expect that Comcast bid on and will win spectrum in the auction. CMCSA’s Q3 2016 cash flow statement, which was released publicly on Oct. 26, 2016, includes a $1.8B line item listed as a “deposit”; presumably an auction deposit by CMCSA to the FCC. Some analysts have suggested that CMCSA plans to acquire 30MHz of spectrum on a nationwide basis.  We believe that the more likely scenario is that CMCSA will win at least 10MHz of 600MHz spectrum in areas where CMCSA already has fiber/coax infrastructure, as shown on the map below.   Alternatively, if CMCSA does win nationwide licenses, we believe they will focus any buildout of equipment in just their current markets they serve now, at least until a compelling business case is developed otherwise.   

Map showing the areas of the US where Comcast provides Cable and Broadband Services
Comcast Availability Map
Source: www.cabletv.com/xfinity/availability-map

CMCSA’s Likely Strategy:

If we are correct and CMCSA wins spectrum in existing service areas, Comcast will use this spectrum to provide both mobile and fixed wireless services primarily to augment their cable services and reduce churn from wireless service providers’ forays into OTT video.  We see their plans as an extension of the recently announced Xfinity Wireless strategy.

Buildout Details

We anticipate that CMCSA will utilize a combination of WIFI and unlicensed spectrum to provide indoor and outdoor coverage and capacity, while using 600 MHz licensed spectrum for wide area coverage.   This will enable CMCSA to reduce payments to Verizon under their MVNO relationship and allow them to provide mobile video to customers without incurring per GB charges from Verizon which are reputed to be in the range of $7/GB. 

Competitive Dynamics

CMCSA’s product won’t attempt to compete with either Verizon or AT&T in terms of breadth of coverage. However, its product will be attractive to existing CMCSA cable subscribers who aren’t highly mobile and who don't require 20GB or more of data.  CMCSA's Xfinity Wireless is set at a competitive price point, particularly to existing customers via a “quad” package.

Marginal Positives for Infrastructure Players

Companies like COMM, MTZ, and DY should benefit marginally from increased need for CMCSA fiber and coax to the premise to accommodate additional bandwidth (inside and outside the premise). However, near-term expectations should be tempered as broadcasters have up to 39 months to relinquish the spectrum.

Implications for the TowerCos

The impact on TowerCos should be muted for two reasons.  First, broadcasters have up to 39 months to “repack” and return the spectrum to the winning bidders, so any tower lease revenue from CMCSA won’t materialize immediately. Secondly, we suspect CMCSA will attempt to control OPEX going forward by limiting the number of collocations on public tower company towers and by emphasizing small cells especially those that are attached on-strand to Comcast's existing fiber and coaxial cable runs in public right of ways.   Ironically, if the Wireless Industry Association is successful in pushing the FCC to override local zoning oversight and fee structures for small cells, they could be enabling competitors to their own constituent wireless carrier and TowerCo members. Nevertheless, there could be a small bump to TowerCos once the FCC announces the auction winners and the winners include entities that don’t currently lease tower space. The possibility of another potential customer could increase investor interest in TowerCos.

Risks and Unknowns:

The risks to this note include:

  1. CMCSA could be outbid / fail to acquire spectrum
  2. CMCSA could be acquired by or merge with an entity that owns spectrum already, and therefore would not need to acquire spectrum or build it out
  3. CMCSA’s near-term WiFi-First/MVNO-second wireless strategy could prove to be unsuccessful and/or discontinued, causing CMCSA to divest this spectrum prior to it being made available from the broadcasters.

Important Disclosures

This report is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as investment advice. It is not a recommendation of, or an offer to sell or solicitation of an offer to buy, any particular security, instrument or investment product. Our research for this report is based on current information obtained from public sources that we consider reliable, but we do not represent that the research or the report is accurate or complete, and it should not be relied on as such. Opinions and estimates expressed herein constitute judgments as of the date appearing on the report and are subject to change without notice.  Any reproduction or other distribution of this material in whole or in part without the prior written consent of Steel in the Air, Inc. is prohibited.  Any projections, forecasts, and estimates contained in this report are necessarily speculative in nature and are based upon certain assumptions. No representations or warranties are made as to the accuracy of such forward-looking statements. It can be expected that some or all of such forward-looking assumptions will not materialize or will vary significantly from actual results.  Steel in the Air, Inc. accepts no responsibility for any loss or damage suffered by any person or entity as a result of any such person or entity's reliance on the information presented. 

Busted! Mobilitie Tries to Install 120′ Poles without Proper Permits AGAIN!

Cartoon image of individual with traffic cone.
Mobilitie Mistakenly Tries to Install Cell Towers Using Traffic Cone Regs
We have to start off by clarifying that this isn't an April's Fools joke- despite the timing and it feeling like one. On the eve of possible FCC review of their petition to the FCC for relief from small cell siting restrictions at the local level, Mobilitie is busted yet again trying to install 120' poles without following the proper local permitting and planning procedure.  You can see the Post-Star story here.  In the first situation, it appears Mobilitie told the fairground official for the fairground where the tower(s) were to be located that they were trying to drill "test holes" and that it was for "the utility company".   Did their contractors just not know any better?  Was Mobilitie just trying to get the structure standing before anyone would notice?  Given this isn't the first time they appear to have tried to erect a pole without a permit, one has to wonder.

At a second location, the Post-Star reported that Mobilitie appears to have erroneously applied for a county highway work permit which is only applicable for temporary infringement of the county right of way.   "Usually it's traffic cones for a driveway resurfacing, officials said."   Mobilitie indicated in response to the article that it was following the correct procedures to get permission for the towers.  One can see how this mistake may have been made- 2' temporary traffic cones are pretty similar to 120' steel poles with 3' wide bases.   (Sorry for the snarkiness, the ridiculousness of this story assuming it is accurate calls for it.)  

 

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.