5 Themes from WIA Show 2017

Graphic of sign showing two directions for tower companies and wireless carriers
Tower companies this way- wireless carriers this way.
The Wireless Infrastructure Show is the pre-eminent tower show in the US. The WIA who puts on the show consists of both tower companies and wireless carriers although it has mostly been run by the tower companies. The Show is a great show to get a chance to talk to and hear from people in the field building and operating towers and small cells. Here are the themes that we found most intriguing at the show.

1. Wireless Carriers and Tower Companies Have Increasingly Different Objectives

The dichotomy between what we heard at the show public events and what we heard directly from tower companies during the meeting is greater than we can remember. Whether related to how small cells fit in, the focus of municipal legislation, or how small and mid-size tower companies are now fulfilling the role that public tower companies did previously for wireless carriers, there is a growing divide between what were previously cohesive goals.

2. Tower Companies and Wireless Carriers Don't See Eye to Eye on Small Cell Legislation

While the WIA is supposedly an organization that works for both carriers and tower companies, the dissention between the two is most apparent in the interest both groups have in small cell infrastructure. The tower companies are quick (too quick in my opinion) to proclaim that no macro tower has ever been replaced by small cells all while intentionally failing to acknowledge the displaced Capex budgets for small cells and the declining collocation lease-up for new macrocells. The carriers secretly (or not so secretly) are pushing for small cell legislation that doesn't afford the same protections to public tower companies (or DAS companies) as it does to wireless carriers. As a result, the tower companies now have lobbyists and possibly PACs of their own to push for their own objectives but nowhere near as many lobbyists as AT&T and Verizon have retained.

3. There Are Signs of Tower Crew Shortage Already.

We asked this question over and over and received mixed responses. Some smaller tower companies (presumably those with long term relationships with vendors) indicated that they weren't having any issues. However, we heard from more than one contact that there were notable shortages especially on larger jobs. Considering that nominal repacking from the broadcast incentive auction has commenced and that AT&T hasn't yet released the flood gates of FirstNet activity, we will be watching this trend closely to determine how it impacts revenue expectations by the public tower companies and deployment activity by the wireless carriers. After closely examining the location of tower company towers in each of the 10 phases of repacking for a hedge fund client which tend to be backloaded over the next 3-year period, we suspect that the crew shortage will get worse.

4. The Impact (if not the number of towers actually relocated) of "Rip-n-replace" is Greater Than Expected.

Unsurprisingly, this really wasn't discussed at the public level at all- but 8 out of 10 of our private conversations dealt with the possibility that private tower companies are building new towers near existing towers to accommodate one or more wireless carriers relocating from the existing tower to reduce their rent. While we aren't seeing evidence of a substantive number of actual relocations as of yet, we have received an increasing number of inquiries from landowners who have been approached by one of the eight or so private tower companies who are reputed to be actively engaged in relocation efforts.

More importantly, for the first time, we heard specific and actionable efforts by the public tower companies to counter the possible threat, which tends to suggest that they are more concerned about the threat than they publicly acknowledge.

5. The Tower Industry is Optimistic About Modification Activity, but Pessimistic Regarding New Lease-Up Activity.

At least as it pertains to our checks, the tower industry seems outright gleeful about the increase in modification activity expected in the coming years. Between FirstNet, the Incentive Auction, and TMUS activity, towers should see nice revenue growth from modification activity in the next 2-3 years.

Left unsaid (or in some cases directly said) was the low expectations of collocation lease-up activity in the coming future. While FirstNet may result in some limited number of new collocations, it won't be material. Some of our tower company clients indicated that they have been seeing low lease-up while others are seeing more positive lease-up. There does appear to be a correlation between higher lease-up and to the urban/suburban/rural location of the towers. If you are looking for details on which tower companies have the most urban/suburban/rural towers and which tower companies have the fewest competing structures per tower amongst the tower companies, we recently completed an in-depth statistical analysis on this for a hedge fund client. Contact us for more details.

 

 

 

 

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. 

Verizon’s Unlimited Plan- Short Term Pain vs Long Term Gain

Don't misread Verizon's about-face on unlimited plans solely as a sign of network confidence.

Tickers: VZ, T, S, TMUS, AMT, CCI, SBAC, COMM, DY, ZAYO

 

Contrary to their previous explicit direction otherwise, Verizon announced on February 12th, 2017 that they would be offering an unlimited voice and data plan at rates slightly higher than comparable offerings from T-Mobile (TMUS) and Sprint (S). Not coincidentally, in its earnings call on Feb 14th, 2017, TMUS indicated that they were porting Verizon subscribers to TMUS at a 2.8:1 ratio to subscribers ported from TMUS to V. This plan is clearly slated to reduce the churn of postpaid customers from VZ to S and TMUS and we believe that it is a very compelling service offering.

 

Analysts were quick to choose sides: the first posited that this was a sign of VZ's confidence in their network upgrades and capacity, while the second group believes that the network will show signs of strain under the added capacity. We believe that both groups are partially correct and that infrastructure related entities are the ones that stand to gain the most.

 

Back in last January, we applauded VZ for their densification efforts in our note Verizon (VZ) positioning for a range of 5G futures. The premise was simple- Verizon's efforts to add fiber and small cells to their network give them a marked advantage over other wireless service providers in the race for 5G. That premise hasn't changed and further research since that note continues to suggest that VZ still has a 1-2-year first-mover advantage from a US wireless infrastructure perspective.

 

Street light small cell
Small Cell In Boston, MA
Nonetheless, it is our opinion that VZ's densification efforts, while industry setting, are not sufficiently complete to provide seamless and reliable service across all urban areas, especially in the near term. Verizon's densification is based on a three-prong approach: carrier aggregation, dark fiber, and rapid deployment of small cells. On the first prong, VZ has actively deployed 2 and 3 carrier aggregation across most of the nation. On the last two prongs, while they have been leading the market in both efforts, there still are areas where their efforts have been slowed due to factors outside their controls. Based on our on-the-ground level visibility, VZ has a hefty lead in dark fiber and small cells actively deployed or in development.

 

In our previous note, we suggested that the next 12 to 18 months will be tough for Verizon as the impact from their investments will take time to materialize. For urban markets where VZ has encountered delays due to local zoning or permitting for deployment of small cells, there will be a reduction in reliability and data speeds. These issues will be more pronounced in markets where Verizon is relying upon two carrier aggregation.

 

Fortunately for VZ, these issues are surmountable and addressable, but it will take some time to rectify them. Expect to see an acceleration of densification in specific troublesome markets. Verizon will need to rely more on outside fiber and small cell providers like CCI and ZAYO. TowerCos (AMT, CCI, SBAC) should also experience continued and possibly accelerated macrocell modification activity and possibly new macrocell deployment from VZ and TMUS in their efforts to meet the pending needs of video downloads (remember that video accounted for 60% of mobile data use in 2016 and VZ and TMUS now include zero-rated HD video in their unlimited plans). Lastly, we would not be surprised to see T extend their unlimited plans beyond DirecTV subscribers, thereby further increasing densification.  (Editor's note- subsuquent to this being written, T did extend its unlimited plans beyond DirecTV subscribers.)

 

Risks to this note: The perception of VZ network superiority declines at a faster rate than expected, causing subscribers to question whether they should spend the additional money on VZ's unlimited plans before VZ's network investments reverse those issues. VZ could reverse their strategy of using outside fiber and vendors in order to control their fate by increasing CapEx towards the development of owned dark fiber assets, thereby reducing ZAYO and CCI opportunities.

 

(Author's note: This research note was published first on 2/20/17. If you are interested in gaining access to our research on a timelier basis or have a discussion on this note or other wireless industry topics, please contact us.)

 

 

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.

Crown Castle Small Cell and Tower Update- 2ndQ 2016

New replacement pole small cell
New replacement pole small cell

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

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

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

Key Takeaways from Crown Castle (CCI) 2015 4th Quarter Earnings Call

We reviewed the transcript and presentation materials for the CCI earnings call for the 4th quarter of 2015 and compared to the same call back in 2014.   Here are the things we found interesting from the call. [Read more…]