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.

Another option for small cell poles- not that pretty- but quick and cheap to deploy.

With small cells, there is an ongoing controversy about the cost of the small cell infrastructure vs. the aesthetic impact of the pole.   There tends to be an inverse relationship between the aesthetic appearance of the pole and the cost- meaning better-looking poles cost more and vice versa.   The issue is that not all small cell installations require a highly aesthetic pole especially those that aren’t in the public view or are in areas where there is no permitting.   In these areas, wireless providers are seeking to build as cheap a small cell pole as possible without consideration of the aesthetics.   

To address those needs, Hemphill (a manufacturer of all types of towers and whom we have to disclose is a long term client of ours on the tower brokerage side) has designed this specific small cell pole they call a “Micro-Site” with this market in mind. Here is how they describe it:  "Micro-Sites are 20', 4" steel tube hinged towers on no dig pre-cast ballast foundations.  Foundations can be placed on a level surface with a skid steer tractor.  Installation is a very quick process.  The tower's hinged base makes antenna maintenance easy and safe." 

Small cell pole
A small cell pole concept from Hemphill

We could see this being used in rural areas, on private property, or in areas where there is no permitting.   We could also envision fleets of these being deployed like COLTs or COWs.  Hemphill will need to come up with a fancy acronym for this.    Here is a photo showing the pole bending over for maintenance purposes.

Photo of small cell with pole and solar
Hemphill's quick deployment small cells with solar panel for power

Here is another photo showing a carrier's test equipment adjacent to the pole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mysterious Small Cell Pole Erected without Permit- Sounds like Mobilitie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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 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.

 

SITA Research Reveals the Real Big Game in Houston was in Small Cells

Small cell scoreboard.

A new competitive dynamic emerges in the fight for densification dominance

Tickers: ZAYO, CCI

(Disclosure- author holds positions in ZAYO)

The deployment of small cells started in earnest in 2015. Two years later, all of the Big 4 wireless carriers have adopted a small cell strategy to handle the 50+% YOY growth in mobile data usage. Along with acquiring or deploying fiber, the deployment of small cells sits at the heart of a hyperconnected 5G future.

As small cells have grown in prominence, analysts have argued about their impact on traditional tower company business models. Recently, Crown Castle (CCI) indicated small cells account for over 12% of total revenue and small cell deployment will only climb in the future—a trend we highlighted in our note Ten Predictions for 2017. Understanding how companies like CCI and Zayo deploy small cells, at what economics, and how the economics compare to historical returns on capital in the tower business is increasingly important.

Last week, we put out an article on how wireless service providers connect with their subscribers at the Superbowl. In doing research for this article, we looked at towers and small cell infrastructure using our proprietary tower and small cell database to examine deployments in and around NRG Stadium in Houston, TX. The wireless carriers have been actively densifying their networks in Houston to prepare for the onslaught of increased wireless data usage, and our data shows ZAYO and CCI competing for the city’s small cell future. While this note focuses on ZAYO and CCI in Houston, there are other players with a presence in this bellwether market. For the sake of simplicity, we’ve chosen to focus on what we see as the top two competitors going forward.

There are three key takeaways that emerged from our research:

1. At the end of the first quarter of small cell deployment, ZAYO is ahead of CCI in Houston.

Zayo is significantly ahead of Crown Castle in the deployment of small cells in Houston, where CCI’s headquarters is located and where CCI just closed on the acquisition of Fibernet earlier this month). CCI stated on their earnings call on 1/26/2017 that “FiberNet substantially strengthens our footprint in Miami and Houston, both markets where we are seeing significant small cell demand.” But despite CCI’s claims about their efforts in Houston, our checks indicate that Zayo small cell nodes (both proposed and completed) exceed CCI nodes by a factor of approximately 10x, giving ZAYO a significant advantage in the market. We have plotted these deployments in the map below, with ZAYO in green and CCI in yellow, and ZAYO’s advantage is clear. Map showing the proposed and deployed small cells for Crown Castle and Zayo in Houston

Our research is specific to Houston and is not a commentary on the ZAYO vs. CCI competitive dynamic across the entire US. We see accelerated development of small cells in Houston because it is a top three city in terms of population and because of the publicity surrounding the Big Game.  However, from a zoning and permitting perspective, Houston is “infrastructure friendly” relative to other cities.  In other words, Houston is an ideal location for robust small cell deployment, so we will continue to watch developments in the marketplace as a bellwether for other major cities. 

2. The Small Cell Game is fundamentally more competitive than the Macrocell game, and First-Mover-Advantage is critical.

Small cells are more competitive than traditional towerco business models, and so the first-mover advantage is more important. Because small cells are deployed primarily in the right of way, and with fewer zoning restrictions and limited NIMBYism to constrain competitive deployments, the first company to win the land grab has an advantage attracting carriers as customers. In some areas, we are hearing that there are six to seven applicants applying for right of way access rights simultaneously in the same locations.

Already having fiber in the ground is beneficial because it enables the lead infrastructure company to solicit potential wireless service providers first. If a second infrastructure company enters the market and builds out the same right-of-way, then a duopoly is created wherein neither gets all four customers onto nodes along the same fiber routes. The best case duopoly IRR scenario is three carriers on the lead and just one on the follower; however, our research suggests that so far Sprint is focused on deploying its own nodes; so markets tend toward two customers on the lead and one on the follower. In their 4th Q earnings call, CCI indicated that “we are building small cell systems with initial yields of 6% to 7% that increased to low-double digits with the second tenant and higher yields with the third and fourth tenants.” This statement presupposes a local monopoly for the leader, not a lower-yielding duopoly. And let's not talk about what happens when there are more than two fiber providers in the same Right of Way.

Our proprietary data allows us to quantify the monopoly vs duopoly state of Houston and therefore to narrow in on CCI’s return on investment as small cells are added to FPL Fibernet’s assets.  If rumored carrier consolidation between Sprint and T-Mobile occurs, the first-mover advantage grows as fewer carriers mean that the second infrastructure deployed in any given city has a fundamentally lower potential return profile. Though the reverse is also true; entry by a cable company into the wireless space could expand the number of potential customers, enabling higher second-mover returns. Net net, with no guarantee of a local monopoly, the second infrastructure deployed is simply compressing the wireless value chain in the favor of carriers. 

3. Even though CCI is down in the first quarter, they can still turn it around.

We are not suggesting that Fibernet was a bad acquisition, nor that ZAYO has the Houston market in the bag. When Crown announced the Fibernet acquisition, the expectation was that CCI would be able to use the valuable metro-fiber plant to encourage small cell deployment on or near that fiber. CCI has indicated they are seeing strong interest for small cells in Houston but hasn’t yet provided any clarity on what constitutes “strong” and whether what they are seeing is in-line with their expectations.

We believe that both companies have valuable assets in Houston, especially to the extent that their infrastructure does not overlap—a factor which our proprietary datasets allow us to quantify. However, it is still too early to determine the degree to which CCI will succeed with Fibernet’s Houston assets. The small cell game is still too early to call. 

We will continue to closely monitor the situation in Houston and we will be expanding our research to additional top 25 markets in the coming months.

 

About Steel in the Air: We have long focused on a data-driven analysis of tower data and on lease rate data for wireless infrastructure. We were the first nationwide cell tower lease consultant and we are the largest, having assisted over 3,500 clients over the last 13 years. We count small to mid-size tower owners, public entities, not for profits, big box stores, shopping center REITs, federal entities, and individual landowners among our clients. We have unique visibility to what is happening on the ground as it pertains to wireless infrastructure deployment. We track everything- every lease, every tower, every cell site, every cell tower lease buyout offer, and every sale of a tower portfolio that comes across our virtual desk. We provide custom research for investment banks on the public tower companies and the small cell providers and developers. If you are interested in discussing this or any article or topic, we can be retained for in-depth discussion and analysis. Contact us for more details.

Immaculate Cellular Reception: How Cell Phones Work at the Big Game

Superbowl Cell Phone Use Infographic
How your cell phone connects at the Big Game

 

Article-images-slice_02The Super Bowl LI fans streaming into NRG Stadium in Space City expect to witness a game-winning touchdown that will go viral. However, seeing it once won’t be good enough – not in this retweet world. If you turn back the calendar to July 1969, there was a different type of touchdown trending. The brains at mission control in Houston’s Johnson Space Center conversed with men on the moon nearly 239,000 miles away via a prehistoric wireless system. According to NASA, half a billion people huddled around television sets to watch a grainy live stream video of the space travelers walk on the lunar surface as if it was an end zone. They weren’t just pioneers in space exploration; they were perhaps the first to engage in genuine social media.Article-images-slice_05Not much has changed since then about a person’s innate desire to chat and share an experience while at a really cool place. And humans, especially cheering Falcons and Patriots fans on February 5th, will share nearly 20 Terabytes of Snapchats, Tweets, Instagram images, Facebook posts, and texts before, during, and after the Big Game.

HO-HUM. ANOTHER RECORD DAY FOR DATA USAGE.

Article-images-slice_09 - Copy

Tethered to their wireless devices, more than 72,000 fans inside NRG Stadium, along with several thousand enthusiastic tailgaters around the venue, are expected to surpass the nearly history-making 9 terabytes of cellular data consumed at the 2016 Super Bowl on the Levi Stadium Distributed Antenna System. They devoured another 10.1 terabytes of data while using the free stadium WIFI network. To satisfy the communication needs of this magnitude, the nation’s four major wireless carriers have been dissecting digital data since Broncos coach Kubiak was showering in Gatorade.
Before you get too excited about data use records being broken year after year at large sporting events, remember that it takes both a strong network and insatiable demand to set the record. As manufacturers continue to make dramatic advancements in their devices and wireless companies work feverishly to increase network capacity, the customer feels more empowered and demands greater amounts of data at events like these. And the nation’s carriers have no choice but to provide lightning-fast networks that will enhance the user’s social media experience. This vicious cycle will continue to generate new data records year after year which the wireless companies will not hesitate to crow about.

 

FANS EXPECT FAST, SEAMLESS CONNECTIVITY. 

WIRELESS CARRIERS MAKE SURE IT IS AVAILABLE.

Why be at the most coveted sporting event of the year if you can’t remind people that you are there? It’s a high-stakes day not just for the referees making the calls; if the carriers fail to transmit selfies, videos, Facebook likes, and Tweets faster than the speed of light, the natives will grow restless. Not to mention Facebook Live and other live video feeds, the gargantuan data-grabbers.  This could translate into a major marketing blunder, not only in the eyes of the customers but also their competitors. For them, the data relay race on Super Bowl Sunday is their wireless Super Bowl and they don’t want to be forced into taking a defensive position.

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So how do the wireless carrier masterminds orchestrate this stellar technological achievement without a hitch? Collaboration, teamwork, along with lots of data and mega bucks. Wireless carriers like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon have each invested anywhere from $10 million to $100 million to improve their cellular infrastructure. From a revenue perspective, it may not make sense to invest this much capital into their networks for this single event – but they will. Even if they could opt-out, the providers place immense value on their customers’ loyalty; the elite big four dread being roasted on social media for days if disgruntled fans complain of stuttering videos and mention them by name. So to prevent self-inflicted PR damage, the carriers will be on site to protect their brand and ensure customers are connected and content.

 

HOW THEY DO IT

For over a year, the City of Houston has been responding to requests and issuing building permits to the carriers authorizing the installation of hundreds of large and small cell sites, cell towers, temporary cell on wheels, distributed antenna systems (DAS) antennas and antenna equipment in preauthorized locations. Each site type has a very specific objective in the network. If all goes as planned, they will perform flawlessly, much to the delight of fans, carriers, and citizens of the host city. How does it all work? The image below shows how these various components interact to form what the industry refers to as a heterogeneous network or Het-Net.

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To accommodate the data demands of outdoor users, a complex interwoven network of large (macrocell) and smaller cellular network sites (small cells and DAS) have been strategically placed along the routes leading to NRG. They have also been staged at various other venues in Greater Houston in anticipation of thousands who will be anxious to join friends and family on social media. To guarantee their jubilation won’t be short-lived, carriers have rounded up just under 100 COWS, cell sites on wheels. These trailer trucks or mobile cell sites are equipped with powerful antennas and radio transceivers to generate extra juice for the cheering fans. The data-hungry partiers who thirst for greater capacity may never even notice the massive, elaborate infrastructure that was designed especially for them. However, they will appreciate it, nonetheless. After the event, the wireless companies can simply pack up this extra capacity and move it to the next event.

As motorists approach the stadium, they are in a steady lane of traffic on highways and roadways to the big event. Along their route, macrocells on towers, rooftops, and other structures are the first to transmit and receive cell phone signals to and from mobile phones. And inevitably the traffic gets congested, which naturally means more people are in the same concentrated area using their wireless devices. This is a call to action for small cell sites; they are deployed to “densify” or increase the capacity of the overall network. A small cell is an individual cell site that is smaller in size, power and coverage radius. The macrocells, small cells, and COWS are part of an incredibly smart network; engineers are able to adjust the capacity according to the density of users. With a click of a mouse, they can redirect multiple smart antennas on multiple sites to refocus on areas of congestion.   

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As the countdown clock ticks closer to kick-off, festive fans begin to arrive at the stadium. Some may congregate at a pregame event or join tailgaters. Still, others may gather with friends and family at a hotel or nearby park. Outside the stadium, wireless carriers have installed a “Het-Net” of rooftop and tower macrocells, small cells, COWS, and powerful Outdoor Distributed Antenna Systems. This infrastructure will provide the capacity boost for the fans. Wherever the fans are, the system must be ready and able to handle the migration and respond with precise accuracy to any media request they are making. By layering small cells and DAS nodes under the macrocells, the wireless carriers make sure that you have coverage wherever you go and capacity whenever you need it.


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A BIRD’S EYE VIEW OF THE CELLULAR INFRASTRUCTURE NEAR THE STADIUM

So how and where does this infrastructure get deployed? Steel in the Air, Inc. examined its proprietary cell tower/infrastructure database to determine the amount and location of wireless infrastructure in the area of NRG Stadium.

Below is a map showing the wireless infrastructure.

NRG Stadium Cell Tower Map copy

graphIf you examine the map, you will see that the towers and rooftop sites are taller and farther apart and provide wider area coverage over the surrounding areas. Underlying the towers and rooftop macrocells are Distributed Antenna System nodes and small cells (both of which are labeled as small cells for simplicity). While this map only includes the area surrounding NRG stadium, similar tower and small cell development permeates all of Houston. To the right is a chart showing how many cell sites are within 2 miles of the Stadium and our estimate of all sites in the Houston metropolitan area.

 

IT DOESN’T END ONCE YOU ENTER THE STADIUM

Outdoors, mobile devices are connected to the cellular network. But once inside the stadium, it’s a whole new ballgame as your device connects to the stadium’s WiFi. And this is where the focus has been intensified. Stadiums built in recent years are constructed with reinforced concrete columns, tons of steel and energy-efficient windows. They, like the 1.9 million square foot NRG Stadium, are nearly impenetrable fortresses daring any wireless signal to enter. However, the nation’s wireless providers are up to the challenge of providing enough capacity to appease approximately 100,000 individuals. Getting enough fiber and bandwidth past all the barriers to end users in the centermost parts of the venue presents an even bigger obstacle. It requires installing nearly 1,300 access points throughout the venue, even placing them underneath seats. That is one access point for every 61 one fans expected to attend the game. Saturating the stadium with WiFi should prevent guests from enduring the frustration of being in a wireless dead zone. For the stadium owner, it gives them the ability to provide catered information and services to their attendees. More importantly to the wireless carriers, it saves them from having to build out a more robust (read expensive) Distributed Antenna System. In most cases, WiFi is cheaper to deploy than cellular connectivity.

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The providers have already spent lavish amounts of money to obtain access – simply for the unique right to be there. Wireless Week states that Verizon, the official wireless provider of the Houston Texans and NRG’s major tenant, has invested $40 million on its Distributed Antenna System.

The return on the investment? According to Verizon, fans will enjoy a capacity increase of 450%. {This link has a nice photo.} AT&T matched that amount, and T-Mobile and Sprint also made significant investments to boost LTE capacity. Their goal is to provide seamless WiFi connectivity for the users, so they won’t use their normal data plans. Otherwise, there would be a data overload.
According to GeekWire, users at the golden anniversary Super Bowl last year consumed 63% more data over the WiFi network than at the prior year. And since records are made to be broken, the stats for 2017 may well eclipse Levi’s Stadium’s 10 TB record.

 

GAME PLAN
TO HANDLE THE PEAKS AND VALLEYS

Meanwhile, at the command center, hundreds of radio frequency engineers and technicians from all four wireless carriers and from the stadiums WiFi vendor will be monitoring network performance. Armed with data and experience, they can project the peak and valley data usage locations in and around NRG. And they dare not forget that many people will bring more than one device. Even before the coin toss, the nation’s major providers will have their eagle-eyes trained on computer screens. Data requests will be rising, as well as the rhythm of their hearts. Everything in and around this day is built and designed for peak usage; it is the cornerstone. It is those critical levels when a network is most vulnerable. The first moonwalker, Neil Armstrong, reflecting back on the lunar landing remarked,"…there were just a thousand things to worry about." The carriers know the feeling.
There’s nothing like a touchdown to bring fans to their feet. Simultaneously, they are seizing data as fast as they can to capture the event and send their Oscar-worthy video to family and friends. As they post either their joy or disgust on Facebook, watch an instant replay on their device, or snap celebratory selfies, those at the command center plan to keep boosting network performance. The halftime festivities are also times of intense peaks. If fans aren’t watching the activities on the field, they are active on social media, either in their seats or as they wait in a long line for refreshments of relief.

The carriers will start to breathe a collective sigh of relief after the champions hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy, but their work isn’t quite finished. Departing fans will still be active on social media. Geekwire stated that at the 2016 Super Bowl, Facebook was the most active social app. And to think that when Houston last hosted the Super Bowl in 2004, Facebook was still three days away from being launched. And Twitter didn’t earn its wings until 2006.Article-images-slice_40

One major, continuous event during the week-long Super Bowl festivities is the NFL Experience. This massive interactive display provided by the National Football League is located a few miles away at the cavernous George R. Brown Convention Center. One of the main attractions will be personalized digital photos. Again, the four major providers have revved up WiFi’s infrastructure to provide enough capacity for thousands of attendees to share their adventures on social media. The NFL Experience is designed to allow fans to enjoy an exhilarating atmosphere with others who share the passion for football. They can even be dazzled by viewing the prized Lombardi Trophy on display. Those who lack a ticket to the Super Bowl, may use their imaginations to transport them to a front row seat inside NRG.
Once the NFL has exited NRG stage left, a steady stream of other events will converge on the stadium. So the millions of dollars invested by the providers will benefit the millions who will visit the venue and the surrounding area shortly. In fact, the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo will begin setting up for the world’s largest rodeo event, running March 7–26. The average daily attendance is 2 million, all of whom will salute Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T for enriching their experiences, which they will no doubt, share on social media.

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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…]