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.

 

Our Takeaways from CommScope Second-Quarter 2017 Earnings Call

Man rolling spool of fiber down sidewalk

The CommScope Second-Quarter earnings call was interesting, more so due to what they couldn't report as opposed to what they did report. Here are our five takeaways from the call:

  • FTTX is being deployed – just not being connected. Fiber to the "X":  To their knowledge, fiber is being passed by residences but isn't being connected yet. We suspect that this is a reference to AT&T actively passing homes and residences to meet their FCC commitment of 12.5M residences passed.   
  • First Net is not here yet. No material orders yet for First Net equipment.   
  • MSOs and MNOs are being more cautious on spending. CommScope expects longer, steadier deployments of infrastructure, as MSOs (cable) and MNOs (wireless) seem to be more cost efficient in their spending.   
  • 2017 won't be Commscope's year. 2018 seems to be a better year.  
  • CommScope sees the addressable small cell market as indoors. With the Airvana acquisition and just the initial rollouts of OneCell, CommScope is focused on indoors.  

CommScope handled itself well during the call, answering questions fairly directly (for an earnings call). They addressed the elephant in the room – AT&T timing – repetitively during the call without actually referring to AT&T. Look for better guidance on a number of fronts this coming quarter.

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 Backup Fiber Requests: How Landowners Should Respond.

Verizon's proposed fiber route on client's property.
Verizon’s proposed fiber route on client’s property.

We have been starting to see requests being made to our landowner clients where Verizon is seeking to get consent to add utilities.  Initially, the pitch is that Verizon needs additional fiber for advanced technologies.   When asked why they need a new utility easement across the property and why they can’t use the existing utility easement, Verizon indicates that they need backup fiber.  In short, they don’t want the backup fiber routed along the existing utility easement because it could be cut at the same time as the primary fiber.

The issue this creates for a landowner is that there are now additional easements run across the property that could inhibit future development of the property.   If every wireless carrier at a site does this- it would be easy to see where there would be a patchwork of fiber easements across the entire property.

Our guidance to landowners facing these type of requests is as follows.

  1. Don’t ever just sign the simple consent letter.
  2. Ask for full construction drawings showing the route of the fiber and any handholds or fiber boxes being added to the property.
  3. If you don’t mind the location, great.  If you do, ask Verizon to route it along a more favorable location on the property.
  4. Check your lease agreement to confirm whether you have any obligation to grant them another fiber/utility easement.
  5. If not, ask for compensation for the easement.  If you need help figuring out the appropriate amount, contact us.
  6. Ask whether you will be required to sign an easement with another utility company and if so, ask to see the actual document.
  7. Have that easement document reviewed by your attorney.
  8. Ask your attorney to add language that requires Verizon to relocate the fiber at their expense if you need to use that portion of the property in the future.

Verizon Small Cell for Comparison

As an addendum to our earlier article about Crown Castle and Mobilitie small cell proposed installations in Orlando, we thought it would be helpful to include a drawing of a Verizon proposed small cell from Massachusetts.   In this case, Verizon is installing a Cloud Radio Access Network (C-RAN) with two small cells to augment their coverage and capacity in the vicinity of an existing Verizon macrocell which is collocated on an existing SBA Communications tower. [Read more…]

Crown Castle (CCI) Small Cell Initiatives and Reporting

Crown Castle DAS Node
Picture of Crown Castle DAS Node from FCC Presentation by Crown

So as a clear indication that Wall Street is very focused on small cell initiatives by the public tower companies, Crown Castle
started reporting their small cell financials separately from their tower financials in the Q1 2016 quarterly earnings and call.   They must have been receiving a significant number of questions from the analysts because the earnings call presentation is carefully crafted to show a rosy picture even though Crown hasn’t been completely transparent on their small cell financials.

SOME VISIBILITY- BUT QUESTIONS STILL REMAIN

In general, we are excited to see them Crown add this reporting, as we have been suggesting to the various analysts that retain us that it is difficult to measure how successful their small cell efforts are without this breakdown. Unfortunately, Crown still isn’t distinguishing between small cells and DAS in the breakdown preferring to treat all DAS nodes and small cells as if they are the same and have similar financial attributes.  Interestingly, an analyst from Bank of America specifically asked this same question in the Q&A without getting a substantive answer.

What we do know from the earnings call is that Crown’s small cell business still amounts to approximately 12% of their consolidated site rental revenue similar to what it was in late 2015.  Crown indicates that new small cell builds amount to 75% of their small cell systems’ incremental revenue – while 25% is additional collocation on existing fiber routes/DAS networks. They suggest that they have 16,500 miles of fiber, but don’t disclose how many miles are actually used for small cell nodes or DAS.   CCI says they are focused on the top 25 markets which isn’t surprising given the location of Sunesys fiber in these same cities. This suggests a few obvious questions for CCI that were partially addressed in this call and should be expanded upon in future calls:

1.  How do they expect to grow once those 25 markets are complete?

2.  Now that the world is fully aware of the value of dark fiber and surplus capacity, is it reasonable to expect another fiber company acquisition?

3.  How many nodes are in top 25 markets or Central Business Districts (CBD) as opposed to non urban core areas? [Read more…]

This is Why We Think Crown Castle’s Acquisition of Sunesys is a Smart Move

Crown Castle International (CCI) is currently the #1-ranked cell tower company in the nation, and owns approximately 40,000 cell towers.  CCI receives most of its revenue from subleasing space on Crown cell towers to wireless carriers.   On April 30, 2015, CCI announced that it would acquire Sunesys, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Quanta Services, for $1 billion.   Sunesys owns or has rights to 10,000 miles of fiber in major metropolitan markets, with ~60% located in the top BTAs. [Read more…]

Biggest Issues for Small Cells: Leases and Backhaul

Small Cell Installation on Rest Station
Small Cell Installation on Rest Station

Alcatel-Lucent has created a database of 600,000 potential small cell sites.  They have coordinated with building owners, tower companies, cable companies, outdoor advertising providers, systems integrators, and managed services providers to list locations where the landowner, building owner, or tower owner are interested in leasing space for small cells and where there is fiber optic service in place already.   These locations would include towers, billboards, DAS facilities, rooftops, and other properties or structures that would accommodate small cells.  [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…]

Zayo Group and Md7 Proposes Rent Reductions to $0/mo.

In a bold effort, MD7 on behalf of Zayo Group sent a letter to a client of ours asking the client to reduce the rent for the fiber access lease on their rooftop to $0/mo.   Their argument (a weak one) is that they are more akin to a utility and should be charged like one.   Since you don’t charge the power company to come on your property, why would you charge Zayo? [Read more…]