Desperate to Get Back at the Tower Companies: The Verizon, AT&T, and Tillman Infrastructure JV

Aerial photo showing tower locations
Tillman Infrastructure Builds Next to American Tower
Yesterday, in a surprise press release by Verizon, Verizon indicated that it had formed a joint venture with AT&T and Tillman Infrastructure to develop "hundreds" of communication towers with "the potential for significantly more new site locations in the future".  Tillman Infrastructure is relatively new to the US- but owns a few thousand towers in Asia.  The press release further states that "These new structures will add to the overall communications infrastructure in the US, and will fulfill the need for new locations where towers do not exist today. They also will serve as opportunities for the carriers to relocate equipment from current towers."  

"WHERE TOWERS DO NOT EXIST TODAY" – REALLY?

Our landowner clients have been contacted by Tillman Infrastructure for placement of new towers on their property. However, despite Tillman's claim to the contrary that the towers will be built where towers do not exist today, virtually all of the proposed Tillman towers we are seeing or hearing of appear to be near existing cell towers.  In other words, Tillman is building new towers right near existing public towerco towers because AT&T appears to be unwilling to continue paying the higher rent that they are paying on an existing tower. The requests that we have seen are primarily in rural areas, presumably where ground rent will be cheaper and where there is no zoning to prevent the proliferation of towers as being proposed by Tillman. (How do we know?  Because we maintain a comprehensive tower location and lease rate database and can easily look up the location of other nearby towers and in many cases identify specific tenants on those towers.) 

VERIZON ENTERS THE FRAY

The first interesting aspect of the press release is not that Tillman is out building collocation replacement towers for AT&T on a build-to-suit basis, but that Verizon issued the press release.  This strikes us as a clear attempt by Verizon to enter a fray between the tower companies and the carriers where historically their public opposition has been muted.  We have already noted Verizon's reluctance to collocate on public tower company towers in the past- this is another option. However, we suspect that there isn't much of a commitment on Verizon's behalf other than that they will consider relocating to new towers from existing towers where Tillman can make them a much better offer than what they are paying already on the existing tower. To us, this press release suggests that neither Verizon nor AT&T has been successful at convincing the public tower companies to adjust their Master Lease Agreements (MLAs) significantly and that both companies are now trying publicly (desperately?) to damage the public tower companies by trying to impact their market valuation.  (SBAC dropped slightly yesterday while AMT and CCI were both relatively unimpacted.)   We suspect that previous negative comments by all the carriers during previous industry conferences and during earnings calls have been ineffective at changing deal terms in the MLAs and investors were not treating the threats seriously because the economics of building a single tenant tower on inferior build-to-suit terms are poor.   However, if both Verizon and AT&T are willing to move from an exisitng tower, suddenly the economics for the proposed tower become more attractive to the build-to-suit partner.  

ONLY A FEW HUNDREDS TOWERS?

The second interesting impact of this note is that it specifically calls out that the agreement is for a few hundred towers.  We struggle to understand why any of the three companies (except Tillman) would want the investment community to know that it is only a few hundred towers that are being considered currently.  While there is a veiled suggestion that it could be more, this press release would have potentially had more impact on investors had it been silent on the number of towers being considered.  A few hundred towers is a drop in the bucket for any of the public tower companies.  

Clearly there are benefits to AT&T and Verizon of relocating. Not only do they save rent, but they also avoid costly modification upgrade fees and possible structural modification Capex on the existing tower to accomodate additional equipment.   With FirstNet on its way, AT&T likely sees this as an alternative to dealing with the tower companies.

If you are a landowner who has been contacted by Tillman for a tower on your property, please contact us and we can help you evaluate their offer and whether you have room to negotiate and if so, by how much.   We will review whether there is an existing tower in the area and if so, whether there are other properties besides your that Tillman can select.  Please note that Tillman has advised our clients that if they get a consultant involved with negotiating the lease, that Tillman will take their tower elsewhere- so don't tell them we are involved.  There may be a time where it makes sense to do so though, at which point, we will advise you to tell them.

If you are an investor who wants to know more about specific areas of focus for Tillman, estimates of how many sites Tillman is pursuing, and which tower companies seem to be targeted more than others, please reach out to set up a paid research call.   We can also intelligently discuss the financial justification for moving and what amount of rent savings justifies relocation.  We can also discuss how the public tower companies will combat these efforts and when they will be effective and when they won't.  Lastly, Tillman isn't the only company focused on collocation relocation build to suit efforts – its just the first one that has gone public with its endeavor.  

 

Research In Progress- Sprint vs. T-Mobile Site Overlap

We are currently working on a bespoke research project for a client where we examine the overlap between Sprint and T-Mobile cell sites.  The merger talks seem to have stalled while Softbank talks to Comcast, Charter, Warren Buffett, and anyone who will listen about merging or investing.   Nonetheless, there is still investor interest in understanding the true overlap of Sprint and T-Mobile cell sites including those that are near each other but not on the same tower.   The public tower companies (AMT, CCI, SBAC) have incorrectly tried to portray their exposure to churn by providing the number of towers they have where there is direct same site overlap.  However, in previous mergers, we have seen very clearly that the merged carrier terminates cell sites that can be as much as 1 mile away from another cell site.    If you have any interest in this research, please contact us.

Map with T-Mobile and Sprint cell sites.
Overlap of Sprint and T-Mobile Cell Sites.

Comcast Wireless 2.0: This time it could actually work.

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

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

Tags: Ken Schmidt, Wireless infrastructure

Background:

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

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

Timing:

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

Expectations:

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

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

CMCSA’s Likely Strategy:

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

Buildout Details

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

Competitive Dynamics

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

Marginal Positives for Infrastructure Players

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

Implications for the TowerCos

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

Risks and Unknowns:

The risks to this note include:

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

Important Disclosures

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

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.

Everest Infrastructure Partners: The Phoenix of Tristar Investors?

Illustration of Phoenix Rising from AshesHISTORY OF TRISTAR INVESTORS

Back in 2008-2013, a company called Tristar Investors was attempting to acquire ground leases under American Tower Corporation (AMT) and Crown Castle (CCI) cell towers. They had some success acquiring the leases using a unique acquisition model where they would "buy out" the tower ground lease by paying the landowner an additional annual or monthly payment above and beyond their current rent through the expiration of the cell tower lease. Tristar would then offer the landowner 50% of any revenue from the operation of the tower after the expiration of the lease. The marketing pitch? At expiration, Tristar assumes ownership of the tower and the landowner becomes a "partner" in the revenue generated on the tower. This was an effective pitch to landowners, and our best guess is that Tristar acquired 300-500 leases under valuable multi-carrier towers.   

In 2013, Tristar settled litigation with American Tower and after that, they shut down. We surmise that Tristar agreed to non-compete and non-solicitation language in their agreements that barred them from purchasing leases from under American Tower. We also believe that Tristar executives previously agreed to language with Crown Castle that provided for similar restrictions on acquiring Crown Castle leases.  

THE RISE OF EVEREST INFRASTRUCTURE PARTNERS

Flash forward to 2017 and it appears that these non-compete/non-solicitation agreements have expired, because a landlord of ours with a multi-carrier American Tower Corporation tower received a purchase offer from a company named Everest Infrastructure Partners that looks suspiciously like previous offers from Tristar Investors. Upon further review of the signatory and the agent who contacted our property owner, it appears that someone has gotten the old Tristar team together and is now attempting to acquire leases under the Everest Infrastructure Partners name. Both the agent and signatory list previous positions with Tristar in their LinkedIn profiles .  

Here is what the offer from Everest looks like: 

Everest Infrastructure Partners, Inc. (“Everest”) is pleased to present to you (“Owner”) this offer letter (“Offer”) for Everest to acquire an easement to the cell tower real estate you own at _____________________(“Property”).    

1. Current Lease.  The Offer is based on the following terms of the current lease for the cell tower operated on the Property:

Current Rent:   $xxx.00 /month    Final Lease Expiration: xx/xx/xx

2. Payment to Owner.  Everest will pay to Owner the sum of xxxxx Thousand and No/100 Dollars ($xx,000.00) per year until the expiration of the Current Lease.  Owner will keep all rents generated by the Current Lease until expiration. Additionally, commencing at the expiration of the Current Lease, Everest shall thereafter pay to Owner ongoing payments equal to Fifty Percent (50%) of the rental revenues received by Everest from any lessee(s) of the Property.

 3. Easement. In exchange for the consideration above, Everest will be granted an easement to the property. The easement area shall be the portion of the Property currently leased for wireless telecom use, and shall include access and utility easements thereto. 

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CELL TOWER LEASEHOLDERS

There are a few concerns that landowners should have about this offer. First, a landowner who receives this offer should clarify with Everest whether they intend to take over the ownership of the tower at expiration, whether they plan to sell the lease back to the tower company, or whether they expect to renegotiate the lease with the tower company and take 50% of the rent for doing so.   

In the first scenario, these types of offers can be attractive to landowners. Our clients who previously sold to Tristar were generally better off for doing so.  

In the second scenario, we believe the landowner is better off just selling or renegotiating the lease with the tower company. Otherwise, at expiration, if Everest sells the lease to the tower company, the tower company could just decide to offer below market lease terms and the landowner would get the very short end of the deal.   

In the third scenario, we also believe that the landowner is better served by selling to the tower company or renegotiating the lease with the tower company. Unless the "buyout" amount exceeds the present value of 50% of future rent from the extended tower lease, the landowner would be better off just keeping the lease and negotiating its own extension or sale with the tower company.   

Accordingly, if you receive an offer from Everest, we recommend confirming with them whether they intend to take over the tower at expiration. If not, we suggest asking Everest about their explicit intentions with the lease. In either of the latter two scenarios, we recommend contacting us so that we can help you determine the value of the lease and explain fully all of your options – not just those presented by Everest.   

Please note that we are not affiliated with Everest. Everest Infrastructure Partners may be a registered trademark. If you found this post while searching for Everest Infrastructure Partners, please direct your browser to www.everestinfrastructure.com.   

Comcast Wireless 2.0- Maybe It Won’t Fail?

On September 20, Comcast’s Brian Roberts announced that Comcast Wireless a second iteration wireless venture is scheduled to roll out in mid-2017. While details have been limited so far, here is what we anticipate based upon 20+ years in the wireless industry. [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…]

Comparison of Large Tower Company and Wireless Carrier Tower Deals

We compiled a comparison of the three most recent wireless carrier tower company deals.   It is important to note that these numbers aren’t exact. For example, the Tower Cash Flow for Verizon/American Tower are projections from the first year of operation. On the AT&T/Crown transaction, the number of towers is rounded off.   Lastly, some like the Verizon/AMT transaction don’t include the net present value of the options to acquire these towers in the future. [Read more…]

CCI expresses interest in buying Verizon towers

Crown Castle (CCI) is the largest of the Big Three U.S. tower companies, and currently owns 40K towers nationwide (followed by American Tower with ~28K and SBA with 15K).   In September 2012, CCI bought 7,200 cell towers from T-Mobile, and in October 2013 it purchased 9,700 from AT&T.  CCI spokesperson says the company is now open to buying 6K towers from Verizon, which would be a $3B acquisition. [Read more…]

How Will the Data Tsunami Affect You?

It makes sense that subscribers with access to 4G LTE use more data – because faster connections result in a better user experience. According to  Mobile data information company Mobidia,  in Hong Kong, for example, LTE subscribers used nearly 100% more data than 3G subscribers. [Read more…]