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.

 

AT&T’s Brilliant Strategy to Double Dip from Public Funding to Build a Better Wireless Network (Investor Research Note from Steel in the Air)

 

We have been getting a lot of questions from investors related to FirstNet equipment and the potential impact on TowerCos, with most questions pertaining to the timing and revenue from amendment activity from FirstNet antenna modifications. You may recall that in AT&T FirstNet Revisited, we reviewed the impact of AT&T winning the FirstNet RFP and the impact on TowerCos, Equipment OEMs, and FiberCos.  We believe that investors may understand and appreciate AT&T’s one-truck roll concept for modifying existing cell sites, but we don’t believe that they understand how AT&T will “double dip” by using both FirstNet and CAF II funding to reduce Opex and Capex related to legacy wireline assets and to more effectively compete in rural areas with satellite broadband providers and even MSOs.  

FirstNet Update

As of 8/17/2017, 12 (editors note- it is now 15) states and the USVI have opted into FirstNet. Noticeably, many of the larger more populous states have not signed up yet, and AT&T needs additional State-level “wins” before declaring FirstNet a success. For a list of states, please see the chart at the end.  The deadline for Opt-in/Opt-Out decision by states is the middle of December, so we see a key indicator of FirstNet activity being large-State adoption in late Q3 and Q4.  

To date, our checks continue to indicate that there has not been any substantive activity on the deployment front. Our private tower company checks are indicating that they have not entered into lease amendments for equipment modifications, and none of the public tower companies or OEMs are reporting guidance related to FirstNet as of yet.  We did see our first AT&T modification request to a client for an existing macrocell which included FirstNet specific antennas and modifications.  If you would like to know more about the size and capabilities of these antennas and the probable impact on public TowerCo leasing revenue, please reach out to your Detwiler salesperson.  

Connect America Fund II and Fixed Wireless LTE

To encourage the build out of rural broadband, the FCC authorized grants to provide broadband services of at least 10 MB/s down and 1 MB/s up.  In 2015, AT&T accepted a grant of $427M per year over six years to build out broadband services to 1.1M rural subscribers, approximately 70,000 of which are connected currently. AT&T indicated that it expected to use WCS (2.3GHz) spectrum to meet these requirements and that buildout would occur between now and 2020 in 18 total states. To see which states are part of the CAF II funding, please see the chart at the end of this note.   

Fixed wireless broadband for AT&T works by connecting to standard AT&T LTE base stations and antennas. A fixed antenna is professionally installed on the roof or the side of the residence or business being served. AT&T commits to providing 10MB/s to the end user, the bare minimum to meet CAF II funding requirements, although we anticipate that AT&T will adjust the throughput dynamically upwards if there is excess capacity at the subject cell site.  

Service runs $60/month and includes 160GB data bucket with additional 50GB blocks available for $10/month. We anticipate that AT&T carefully chose this amount of data in order to encourage purchase of DirecTV bundles. Fixed wireless plans are separate from mobile wireless plans.   

Implications for AT&T

AT&T has consistently discussed the value of deploying FirstNet along with fallow AWS and WCS spectrum. They refer to this as a “one-truck roll”, meaning that they only have to visit each cell site to be modified once. This reduces amendment costs and time delays.  Given the reliance on WCS spectrum for CAF II rural fixed wireless broadband, it makes a lot of sense for AT&T to focus on those areas where it expects to have to meet both CAF II requirements and FirstNet coverage requirements. Furthermore, to the extent that AT&T continues to effectively lobby state utility commissions to allow it to abandon landline service as fixed wireless takes over, AT&T benefits from reduced operating expenses from costly to maintain copper landlines.   

Implications for TowerCos 

Previously, we indicated that TowerCos would benefit from the award and nothing has changed in that regards other than the delayed timing of guidance from the TowerCos related to FirstNet. As we start to see our first modifications, we see slightly larger antennas than we described in previous notes, which could support the higher end of the range on modification revenue. We anticipate that AT&T will focus on modifying existing sites as opposed to new collocations on public tower company towers so most of the opportunity for the public TowerCos will come from modification amendments. As we addressed in Rip-n-Replace- When Moving Off One Tower to Another Makes Sense (private note, if interested, please contact us), we expect that AT&T will utilize private build-to-suit companies for new site locations instead of collocating on existing public tower company towers, even if it means building a new tower next to an existing tower.   

Implications for Satellite 

One of the more regular questions we receive from clients focused on VSAT and SATS is regarding the impact of rural fixed wireless broadband and the scope of expansion by MNOs and other entities into those areas predominantly served by satellite broadband. Specifically, whether the economics are justified for MNOs to expand into rural areas. While the economics may not be sufficient based solely on providing broadband services, the calculation changes when the FCC or FirstNet starts to fund part of that buildout. At this point, we don’t know the total addressable market of current satellite only subscribers that would potentially churn to AT&T service. Stay tuned though as we are working on a bespoke research project looking specifically at the extent to which fixed terrestrial wireless could supplant the need for satellite broadband services.  

 

STATE BY STATE LIST OF LAND LINE, CAF II, and FIRSTNET ADOPTION AS OF 8/17/2017

 

 

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.

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.

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.)

 

 

AT&T Shifting Capex into Small Cells

Implications: T, S, ZAYO, CCI, AIRO, COMM, DY, ERIC, NOK  (Disclosure- author holds position in ZAYO)

Looks like T's finally cutting over to small-cell investment as S continues to under invest.

Carrier capex budgets for 2017 and forecasts for 2018 aren't out yet, but our checks indicate that AT&T, which has to-date been a relative holdout on small cells, is finally shifting investment share in this direction.

Back in June, T highlighted that 90% of its next-5-year macrocell infrastructure was already in place, but only 5-10% of the small cell infrastructure for this same period had been built.

Checks now show that T is beginning to reassign real estate department personnel to work on small cells. Furthermore, some subcontractors are reporting increased requests from AT&T to do site walks for small cells.

Notably, we are not yet seeing increased municipal permitting / leasing. Given 9-12 month lead times, this suggests that small cell ramps will occur toward the middle of 2017 with a likely acceleration into 2018.

We anticipate that T will focus its small cell efforts in Wireline markets where the company already owns existing fiber and has access to Right of Ways and Franchise Agreements. T will best be able to control costs in these areas where it is already considered a wireline utility and has existing infrastructure in place. These markets include most of the Southeast and Midwest as well as a few markets in California.

Map showing the states in which AT&T has wireline service
AT&T -Landline Markets before CT was sold (Image from AT&T)

Implications

 We see this shift as an incremental positive for fiber providers and small cell operators like ZAYO, CCI and CSAL; although the effect is likely to be muted to the extent that their metro fiber overlaps with AT&T's. It's a likely positive for OEMs like AIRO and COMM that provide small cell equipment and antennas but don't have exposure to the decline in macro cell equipment.  Implications will likely be mixed for DY, NOK and ERIC. They should benefit from increased small cell work but are already seeing reduced capex allocated to macro cells.

Sprint Follow-up

Related to our past comments on Sprint, (see 10/26 – Sprint (S) still behind small cell 8-ball), we continue to see additional data points supporting our thesis.

Sprint confirmed during their last earnings call that last year’s Capex was lower than their previous guidance to the market by $2B ($2.3B actual vs $5B guidance).  Sprint has been talking up its plans for years with relatively little to show for it, and recognition seems to be building throughout the marketplace, and the investor community, that the Mobilitie relationship has yielded far fewer small cells than were anticipated.  Sprint is giving lip service to 2017 being a better year for permits and capex, but its hopes seem to be predicated on FCC leadership changes and possible rulemaking to remove impediments to small-cell deployment in right of ways.  In fact, Mobilitie seems to have pinned a significant amount of hope on a Petition to the FCC for Relief.

We think Sprint's capex will increase in 2017 off of an ultra-low 2016 number, but the service provider continues to struggle to deploy capex dollars.  We wouldn't be surprised to see major revisions to the strategy as well as Street expectations.

 

Crown Castle Small Cell and Tower Update- 2ndQ 2016

New replacement pole small cell
New replacement pole small cell

While the call itself was pretty understated as compared to even other CCI calls, it was in the Q&A where the call got interesting.  Here is what we took from the call.

TOWERS:  ($115M organic revenue growth in 2nd Quarter)

New Builds:  In regards to new builds, CCI is not building many new towers- only 50 of them in the last quarter.  They don’t say it, but we believe that the majority of those towers are replacements of their existing towers where the underlying landowner wasn’t willing to extend the underlying tower ground lease at a fair market value rent.   Crown doesn’t expect this slow pace to change, noting specifically that there are a number of new tower company entrants or established mid-tier tower companies that will do non-sensible build-to-suit deals in order to establish market share. [Read more…]

FAA to Reduce Maximum Height of Towers Near Airports

In an effort to establish a wider flight safety path for airplanes that might “lose power during takeoff,” the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recently proposed that the maximum height of buildings near all U.S. airports should be reduced.   Some industries have balked at this proposal, including real estate developers and cell tower companies.  Wireless telecom players are concerned that the proposed rules would limit the ability to successfully deploy antennas on rooftops, in addition to hampering the construction of cell towers in general.  Current legislation allows buildings to be as high as 250 feet and  towers to be as high as 200 feet at a boundary that begins 10K feet from an airport.   If the new rules go into effect, the maximum height  of towers could be reduced to l60 feet, which is liable to cause a lot of spending due to equipment modifications, and might even cause some carriers to relocate. Many chambers of commerce across the nation are also concerned that the change would slow growth in local economies, especially those with dense urban centers located within ten miles of the airport, such as Tempe, Arizona.

Smart Cell Site Deployment Can Benefit the Hotel Industry – Here’s How.

In 2012, wireless subscriber use surpassed 100% – meaning that the average person in the US had more than one wireless device – and this upside is not going to end any time soon! In fact, wireless data use is expected to quadruple in the next five years, so it’s best to prepare in advance.  Wireless carriers network infrastructure plans were originally intended to optimize and enable voice traffic, as opposed to data; however this strategy has changed dramatically in the past year or two. [Read more…]

Consent Requests for Fiber Optic Cable

Cell tower fiber optic easement
Example of unacceptable repairs by the tower owner after installing fiber optic cable

Building owners and tower ground leaseholders nationwide are being contacted on a regular basis by the wireless carriers and tower companies who occupy their property to grant access rights for fiber optic cable. As data demands increase dramatically, there is a need to improve the data throughput from the individual cell sites. The solution is to lay fiber optic cable, which is faster than traditional copper wire, less expensive, and more efficient than T-1 or DS3 lines. [Read more…]