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 The tower companies are quick (too quick in my opinion) to proclaim that no macro tower has ever been replaced by small cells all while intentionally failing to acknowledge the displaced Capex budgets for small cells and the declining collocation lease-up for new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.

 

 

 

 

Sprint’s not-so-mini Mini-Macro Problem

Photo of Mobilitie Pole
Sprint-Mobilitie Mini-Macro- This One Was Permitted
Sprint’s partner, Mobilitie, allegedly building mini-macros without adequate regulatory approvals

Tickers: S, AMT, CCI, SBAC

Tags: Ken Schmidt, Wireless infrastructure

Background:

Sprint has dramatically underspent competitors over the past few years, arguing that its superior spectrum position, coupled with its densification efforts, allowed it to serve wireless customers at a fifth of the cost of VZ, ATT, and TMUS.

In our previous note “Sprint Behind the Small Cell 8-Ball (10.26.16)”, we surveyed the top 25 cities and found that Sprint was talking a lot about, but not actually deploying, mini-macros at scale. Subsequently, in “Sprint Shows Signs of Life on Small Cells (04.10.17)”, we noted that increased hiring activity by Sprint’s small cells partner Mobilitie indicated near- to intermediate-term construction activity and that we would watch construction efforts to gauge follow-through.  

Recent Checks: Who Cares About Permits

On May 2, 2017, Event-Driven, a wireless industry news site, published a report claiming that Sprint approved the construction of non-permitted sites. The report includes what appears to be an internal memo from Sprint’s Vice President of Network Development to area development managers regarding a trial enabling Mobilitie to “commence construction on new wireless sites without full regulatory compliance…”  See the Memo here.  While the memo appears authentic, we have not received independent confirmation.

Assuming the memo and its content are real, this memo jeopardizes the timing of Sprint’s mini-macro build-out and densification efforts. If Mobilitie is not following zoning and permitting regulations or is not submitting to the FCC for NEPA, SHPO, and Tribal Consultation as may be required for some new structures, this could increase the timeline for construction of new mini-macros by six or more months.

In the memo, Sprint appears to recognize this. Sprint cites that it was building 33 new mini-macros per week, but that during the trial, new builds dropped to six per week. The memo clarifies that, in the future, Sprint will require that Mobilitie follows all regulatory requirements, and concludes that the “reputational risk” to Sprint outweighs the benefits of proceeding with the trial.

Implications:

We see an increased risk to Sprint’s ability to deploy critical wireless infrastructure, and we reiterate the historically low levels of Capex Sprint has spent over the past few years as a risk to its long-term competitive position. Municipalities in which non-permitted construction occurred will scrutinize Sprint’s (and maybe the industry’s) entire infrastructure portfolio, potentially resulting in take-down orders, fines, and possibly litigation. Sprint may find that the “site count” for this permit-less trial is neutral, or even negative after reviews are conducted by local, state, and federal authorities.

Failure by Sprint and/or Mobilitie to get enough sites “on-air” could cascade in unexpected ways. For instance, Sprint may be forced to revise its network densification strategy to a more tower-centric or traditional-small-cell-centric strategy, benefiting the public TowerCos. Sprint may also be forced to rely upon leased fiber or dark fiber, which could change Opex or Capex respectively.

There are M&A implications as well. Now that the FCC quiet period has come to a close, there is a slight increase in reputational risk that could potentially drive an acquirer, or a target, toward a rival.  However, Sprint’s underspend on the Capex side makes their cash flow look more inviting potentially encouraging suitors. 

Zooming out, this memo, authentic or not, could hamstring industrywide efforts to reduce regulations related to small cell siting.  Perceptions that Mobilitie and Sprint (allegedly) deliberately circumvented municipal regulations imperils petitions to the FCC for relief from such regulations, and the industry’s desired characterization as a “utility” could take longer to achieve, slowing broader CapEx deployments.  

This note was originally published on 5/2/17 to our research clients.  If you are interested in getting more timely access to our research or would like to have a discussion on this note, please contact us.

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.  

Small Cells Aren’t Like a Pizza Box

Pizza Box Small Cells
Number of Pizza Boxes that Fit in 6 Cubic Feet or 28 Cubic Feet

WHAT THE INDUSTRY SAYS

The wireless industry has been pushing the fiction that small cells are the size of a pizza box.   Here is a quote in a Wireless Week article– 

"Americans will benefit tremendously from innovations like 5G and the Internet of Things, which require more small cell facilities – often the size of a pizza box – to build a denser network," CTIA's assistant vice president of regulatory affairs Scott Bergmann said. "Today’s action by the FCC recognizes the minimal impact of these facilities, but there is more work to be done. We must streamline infrastructure policies at all levels of government so that wireless providers can rapidly deliver the next generation of products and services to consumers.”  (emphasis added)

Furthermore, as reported by Wireless Estimator here,  "In the CTIA presentation, the trade group said that networks can now be extended on (sic) common structures like street lights and utility poles and that there will be 300,000 “pizza box-sized small cells needed in [the] next 3-4 years.”

WHAT THE INDUSTRY ACTUALLY WANTS

While some small cells are the size of a pizza box- many aren't.   The industry clearly doesn't think so either despite their public pronouncement otherwise.   In the newly proposed state legislation in 20+ states, there is language that allows the wireless industry to install up to 6 cubic feet of antennas and up to 28 cubic feet of equipment on each pole.  For example, see this language from the recently passed Virginia statute.   

"Small cell facility" means a wireless facility that meets both of the following qualifications: (i) each antenna is located inside an enclosure of no more than six cubic feet in volume, or in the case of an antenna that has exposed elements, the antenna and all of its exposed elements could fit within an imaginary enclosure of no more than six cubic feet; and (ii) all other wireless equipment associated with the facility is cumulatively no more than 28 cubic feet in volume, or facilities comprised of such higher limits as established by the Federal Communication Commission. The following types of associated equipment are not included in the calculation of equipment volume: electric meter, concealment, telecommunications demarcation boxes, ground-based enclosures, back-up power systems, grounding equipment, power transfer switches, cut-off switches, and vertical cable runs for the connection of power and other services."

In other words, the industry likes to present to municipalities that small cells are the size of a singular pizza box because it makes a compelling story.   However, the want to give their members the right to install substantially larger equipment than would fit in a single pizza box.   

Please feel free to use this image without attribution.   Also, for another good representation of what 28 cubic feet represents- see http://wireless.blog.law/2017/04/22/california-sb-649-big-lie-small-cells/.

 

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.  

 

 

Top 10 Things the Wireless Industry Doesn’t Tell You about Small Cells

By Ken Schmidt, Omar Masry, and Rick Edwards

Are you a homeowner who's recently received a notice indicating that a new small cell antenna is going to be erected on or near your property? Or a lawmaker who has received one of the industry's new opinion papers about small cell antenna regulations? Or an FCC Commissioner who is considering small cell rule-making? Before you start citing from or buying into the pretty pictures and bright-eyed economic projections in the opinion papers below, you should know that these industry-commissioned studies do not tell the whole story:

    1. CTIA – Enabling the Wireless Networks of Tomorrow

    2. CTIA – How 5G Can Help Municipalities Become Vibrant Smart Cities

    2. WIA – Small Cells on Pole Facilities

What's wrong with them, you ask? Plenty. Here are the top 10 things the wireless industry doesn't tell you about small cell antennas:

#1: Despite the wireless industry's calls for collocation using shared infrastructure, in practice, carriers apply for individual small cells instead of shared infrastructure like DAS.

Small cells are standalone individual cells that can be installed separately. They're like miniature cell towers but without the tower. Like towers, a small cell requires both an antenna and equipment. Unlike towers though, the wireless industry likes to place the transmission equipment on the utility or other support structures. In effect, this means that the installation of small cells must either increase the visual blight of the pole or increase the diameter of the pole if the equipment is put inside.

Distributed Antenna Systems, in contrast, typically require less substantial infrastructure attached to each pole and can be more easily made to resemble street lights and signs (like the examples in #2). Common equipment can be placed within a centralized hub conveniently located underground or outside of view. Whereas small cells are single user installations, carriers can share DAS nodes. Multiple wireless service providers can share a DAS node, and multiple frequency bands (Carriers) can be facilitated on each node. This reduces the total number of sites needed and makes each site more attractive because most of the transmission equipment sits in a shared offsite DAS hub.

Given the benefits of DAS, you might wonder why the industry would prefer to build small cells instead of a constructing a DAS? There are 5 reasons – some of which are legitimately problematic for wireless carriers and some of which just require increased investment or time but aren't beneficial to the bottom line.

Reason 1: Each wireless provider has different objectives and may not need the same locations.

Reason 2: Each wireless provider has different deployment times and requiring DAS may force one carrier to wait if others are not ready.

Reason 3: DAS systems cost more because they're designed for the requirements of the most advanced user. So if carrier A needs feature X, even if carrier B doesn't, then the system will include feature X.

Reason 4: DAS systems require a concentrated, coordinated effort and someone to lead it.

Reason 5: Small cells are easier to deploy. DAS applications are reviewed in total – meaning that an objection to any part of the DAS application holds up the entire request.

The result: Providers submit applications for small cells even in downtown, urban core areas where DAS makes more sense. In some cases, providers apply for permits on adjacent poles where it's obvious that a DAS system would reduce visual clutter. Or even submit for new poles adjacent to other light/utility poles of similar height to avoid paying the rate schedules published by municipalities.

The map below shows the actual number of small cell application locations within the City of Houston by four different wireless entities. In a dense urban area like this – why not propose DAS nodes that all entities can share and decrease the number and impact of these facilities on the community?

The wireless industry needs to actually collocate rather than just talk about collocation. Furthermore, the FCC and cities themselves should mandate collocation when multi-carrier small cells are technologically feasible.

#2. The wireless industry associations want standardized federal, state, and local rules but don't even standardize themselves.

The wireless industry demands standardization of state and local government laws related to the erection of small cells. Their opinion papers suggest that without standardization, wireless applicants will be hit with a patchwork of wireless siting regulations. So they're putting forth a multi-pronged approach:

    1. Distributing Industry-Friendly Sample Ordinances

    2. Lobbying Heavily at State Level (see ALEC)

    3. Submitting a Petition for Relief to the FCC (see Mobilitie)

    4. Lobbying Heavily at the Federal Level

The wireless industry alleges — without providing any quantitative analysis — that most municipalities are applying costly, antiquated macrocell regulations to small cell applications. While many smaller municipalities do not have small cell policies in place at this time, that is because the wireless carriers aren't building many small cells in smaller towns and villages. But many larger municipalities (and those where 90% of small cell deployment are occurring) have begun to implement small cell regulations or will do shortly.

At the same time, the wireless industry's applicants can't even submit consistent small cell applications to their municipalities. It's blatantly hypocritical. For example, some cities report receiving location maps showing new small cells in the middle of ponds or on footbridges or in areas that are under another city or county's jurisdiction. Some applicants are not even submitting site-specific applications – instead submitting the same drawing over and over. If the wireless industry believes that standardizing the permitting process is necessary, they should be willing to standardize their own small cell antenna configurations and requests as well. All applications should provide for and include the same information so that the municipality does not have to ask multiple times for the applicant to complete the basic information. Every application should include a structural analysis wet-stamped by a state licensed engineer demonstrating that the new pole or existing pole is structurally sufficient for the current loading. Plans should include where power is coming from and how power will be metered, or better yet be subject to an unmetered wireless rate or utilize wireless smart metering

The WIA and CTIA should encourage standardized applications and requirements among their member constituents. But we believe their approach should not just consist of lobbying states, the FCC, and local governments. These organizations should work towards drafting common application requirements and best practices for their constituent members. They should then discipline or reprimand those members that do not follow such practices. Most importantly, wireless industry associations should focus on assisting member entities in developing and using shared infrastructure.

 

#3. What the industry installs looks vastly different than what they say is possible.

You may remember this article that went viral where Buzzfeed compared the fast food company photos of their food vs. what the consumer actually received.

Similarly, the wireless industry's glossy pictures show an idealized implementation that is far different from reality. Their reports showcase integrated poles with small cells contained within or Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) nodes with an off-site equipment hub. These appear slim and attractive (relatively speaking). However, when these same wireless carriers or small cell companies submit the actual drawings and applications, the installations do not look anything like those pretty glossy pictures. Or, after they install the attractive poles, they bloat the view with additional equipment, creating a visual blight.

For example, below are photos promoted in the WIA Small Cell document. (Note these pictures are DAS nodes- not Small Cells – see #4 below)

Compare those to photos of actual small cell installations. They are nothing like the photos shown in wireless industry propaganda.

      

The reason for this is twofold: First, the industry likes to show pretty photos of DAS nodes because they are actual possibilities, even though the wireless carriers and tower companies are increasingly abandoning them. Wireless carriers are instead building small cells which usually have more equipment on the pole than DAS's central hub. Second, in many cases, the applicant omit to mention a part of the equipment that's to be mounted near or on the pole either because they're rushed or because they don't want to answer objections. The municipality is left holding the bag – inspecting each constructed small cell in order to confirm whether the applicant exceeded what they were authorized to install. Don't believe this actually happens? Look below to see what the industry submitted as a photo simulation versus what was eventually installed.

  

 

#4.  Once a site is erected, they can go back and increase its size ad nauseam provided that the changes do not exceed federal standards.

Once a small cell or DAS node is attached to a pole, the wireless carriers have the right under Section 6409(a) of the Middle-Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act to expand their equipment. In other words, once a site is built, municipalities have little power to restrict further expansions of the pole's small cell antenna equipment if the applicants stay within the limits of 6409(a). Moreover, wireless companies can request to expand an unlimited number of times. So even if a small cell starts off looking small and svelte – it could be expanded in size immediately without the municipality being able to stop the expansion. And this can happen over and over again.

A GIF showing steps in a tower being expanded
How a small cell can be expanded into a mini cell tower.

Below is a photo showing what a small cell looks like after multiple expansions.

 

#5: The industry claims that wireless development will not occur without major policy changes. But in fact, wireless development has occurred and will continue to occur even without those changes.

Historically, the industry has made the same argument over and over again: that they will not be able to deploy infrastructure if wireless siting laws aren't loosened. They suggest that most any regulation that slows down wireless deployment limits technological advancement. The industry puts out derisive blacklists of cities and counties that one or more wireless company believes make it difficult or expensive to deploy wireless infrastructure. They label these cities as technologically backward and lobby decision makers to convince them that their city will not grow with such technological restrictions. For example, see this quote from Gary Jabara of Mobilitie about municipalities or counties who aren't receptive to Mobilitie's proposals to erect 120' mini-macro small cells in their city or county.

Nonetheless, even in expensive markets with incriminating reviews like the one above, small cell deployment still occurs. Wireless companies still build towers or even find private locations for rooftop cell sites. A quick examination of Verizon or AT&T's coverage map will show very few holes in urban or suburban areas.

Furthermore, in most states (35 or more) wireless companies have access to utility poles which are subject to pole attachment rates prescribed by the federal government. These pole access rates are fairly reasonable; they are typically less than $500/year per pole. However, working with the utilities can be time-consuming, which is why the wireless industry is pushing for easier access to municipal poles. Isn't it odd that wireless carriers claim to be utilities but aren't actually using utility poles?

Even in markets like Baltimore, MD where the small cell rates are somewhat high compared to other US cities, Baltimore is still receiving small cell applications at a pace comparable to communities with closer-to-average rental rates. In other words, while the industry claims that higher rates impede technological advancement for a city, the reality is that wireless carriers still build small cell sites and many of them. While small cell deployment would likely happen quicker with revisions to regulation and cheaper access to municipal structures, make no doubt about it, the development would occur either way.

 

#6: The industry labels any request for cost reimbursement or rents by a municipality as a "money grab" all while the industry itself is generating $60 billion in profit per quarter.

We participated in a meeting between one city and members of one of the national wireless trade groups. The trade group decried the city's rent requests for access to taxpayer-funded infrastructure as a "money grab." Meanwhile, each of the wireless carriers has generated 20% profit margins or better in recent years – with at least one generating margins over 40%. The Big 4 wireless carriers alone are generating nearly $60 billion a year or more in EBITDA margin while the wireless industry combined generated $85 billion.

To argue that municipalities are money grabbing by charging a reasonable price for access to publicly-funded infrastructure by for-profit entities is disingenuous at best.

If one assumes the industry is constructing 20,000 new small cell antennas a year, even if each pole fee was $3,000/year, the wireless industry AS A WHOLE would only lose out on $60 million or less than .1% of their annual profit. Yes, you read that right,- less than 1/10th of 1 percent of their annual profit.
To put in perspective, Verizon and AT&T alone spent half that amount on lobbying alone in 2016. (see Open Secrets for AT&T and for Verizon)

These arguments seem even more duplicitous when you see the headlines put out by the wireless industry that extol the tremendous revenue opportunities from 5G and other advancements. For example:

The Qualcomm "survey," says the 5G future will support up to 22 Million Jobs and $12 trillion dollars of goods and services.

Cisco says 50 billion things will connect to the internet. Read this article on why the hype on the number of connected devices is overblown.

CTIA citing an Accenture analysis suggests that 5G stands to create 3 million jobs in the US while yielding investment of $275 billion and encouraging GDP growth of $500 billion.

Simply put, the industry has every right to attempt to negotiate with municipalities for cheaper access to taxpayer funded and maintained municipal poles. But if they insist on making it about money, we believe those same taxpayers and municipalities should be prepared to point out the hypocrisy in their claims.

 

#7: The wireless industry wants to pay less for their small cell permit applications yet still receive faster review timelines from understaffed cities and counties.

Historically, we estimate that most cities rarely received more than 50 applications for new wireless sites per year from 2000-2015. Even in the boom years of 2008-2010, cities may have received just 150 applications for new wireless facilities. Contrast that to today: we have confirmed that the City of Houston received over 700 applications in 2016 alone for small cell infrastructure.

On the one hand, the wireless industry politely (or not so politely) asks for a quick turnaround on small cell antenna applications (complaining to the FCC and state representatives when they don't get it) but then on the other begrudges municipalities for charging fees to review the applications. For those of you not entrenched in the minutia of municipal red tape, these requests for the use of infrastructure or placement of equipment are rarely identical from one application to the next. Some companies are very good at drafting thorough and complete applications, but most are not. No matter what size the project is, the items to review in each application are the same. Each site still needs to be reviewed for structural, electrical, and physical safety.

Without standardization by the industry, these applications can't be reviewed easily. This, in turn, increases the cost to the municipality for reviewing such applications. The industry wants the best of all worlds – to submit hundreds of applications simultaneously, have those applications reviewed quickly regardless of their quality, and pay as little as possible for the city to review them.

Some members of the wireless industry have suggested that cities do not need to review the applications thoroughly as the wireless entities already do so internally. For proof of how ineffectively self-regulation works in the wireless industry, look no further than the 2007 Malibu Canyon fire which was caused by utility poles that were physically overloaded with telecommunication company antennas and equipment. Apart from safety concerns, the proliferation of poorly designed small cells can also degrade historic districts and draw noise complaints from neighbors when a carrier with loud cooling fans is mounted on a pole a few feet from a bedroom window.

 

#8: The wireless industry extols the wide-ranging benefits of the Internet of Things (IOT), smart cities, and self-driving cars, but fails to mention that many of these benefits can be obtained using current LTE-based technologies.

First, let's be clear that there are absolutely many wide-ranging benefits from 5G and small cell densification. Truly mobile IOT won't happen without wireless industry investment. No other private or public entity can or will develop sufficient wireless infrastructure in the US to enable pervasive low latency communications. Without wireless industry investment, remote control of sensitive machinery or vehicles simply won't occur. Self-driving autonomous cars will be possible but without the gains in safety and efficiency that would occur from a truly smart network of connected cars.

However, you can get the benefits of low bandwidth, non-essential IOT or smart city sensors and functions without small cells at all (or at least with fewer of them). The CTIA (Accenture) study above cites the benefits using smart meters and smart lighting. These include traffic management systems, public transportation location-based tracking, real-time public parking information, and gun-shot recognition. These are all benefits to be gained from IOT. However, neither Accenture nor the wireless industry makes any attempt to quantify or distinguish which smart city and IOT initiatives require wireless industry involvement and which don't.

Furthermore, these studies don't even remotely acknowledge which IOT benefits can happen on today's LTE networks versus those that need more robust densification of sites to occur. The wireless industry leads you to believe that you need the innovations they want to sell you to get any of these advances of the future. That is inaccurate.

 

#9: While the wireless industry claims densification of small cells is needed to enable smart city and IOT functions, they don't tell you that mobile video is the primary use of small cells both now and in the future.

Cisco, in its 2017 Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, indicated that video currently makes up 60% of mobile data traffic. Moreover, they forecast that three-quarters of the world's mobile data traffic will be video by 2021. Ericsson's own study states that mobile video traffic represents 55% of LTE/5G data traffic now, but is expected to grow to 95% (yes- 95%) of mobile data traffic by 2021.

Cisco states further that 50 billion IOT devices will be connected to the internet within 5 years. However, only 1.5 billion of these devices will have cellular connectivity. We have seen forecasts from other sources that IOT mobile data use will grow to 8% of total network mobile data use by 2021. In other words, IOT functionality only drives less than 10% of the bandwidth need for small cell densification.

This raises the question: how many small cells are necessary to enable Smart City and IOT initiatives versus how many are really needed to densify networks for the next generation of fixed wireless to home and mobile video?  For further information on why mobile and fixed wireless video is so important to AT&T and Verizon, see this article on the wireless industries efforts to compete with the cable companies.

To be clear, we aren't suggesting that mobile video or fixed wireless are inconsequential. Without the revenue generated from mobile and fixed wireless video, the wireless industry would not have the incentive to invest as much Capex in their wireless networks to enable some of the truly amazing IOT and smart city use cases – especially those that require low latency or secure and ultra-reliable communication.

We are, though, suggesting that any indication by the wireless industry that 5G and small cell densification is primarily about IOT and smart city functions is a half-truth at best. The reality is that small cells densification is more about paid consumer and commercial video than it is about IOT or smart cities.

 

#10.  The industry is willing to push select information about small cells but not willing to respond to substantive questions from municipalities.

Before a recent meeting began between one city and 20+ representatives of wireless and tower companies, each side exchanged questions. The wireless industry provided 30-40 questions to the city, and the city provided a list of 15-20 questions to the industry. The city's questions were fairly straightforward:

What do the wireless providers see in terms of other cities that require rental payments?

How many small cells does the industry contemplate installing in the city over the next 5 years?

What type of infrastructure/antennas does the wireless industry expect to need on the poles?

The city responded to all the industry's questions with substantive detail. In return, only ONE company responded to the city's questions. And most of those responses were cop-outs – claims that they couldn't answer due to competitive concerns. CTIA/WIA provided a glossy presentation that discussed all of the overarching benefits of IOT and 5G, but failed, for the most part, to provide any substantive and direct answers to the questions posed by the city itself.

At the end of the day, the wireless industry wanted to poke holes in the city's effort, but was unwilling to answer important questions that would have helped the city review and revise its own policy.

How can any city reasonably be expected to plan and prepare adequately for small cell infrastructure when the wireless industry continues to provide limited substantive information?

So Where Does this Leave Us?

Municipalities need to realize that wireless investment in small cells should be encouraged and reasonably managed and that doing so requires investment in staff and resources. They can no longer put their heads in the sand because it isn't a question of if, but of when and of how many small cells are coming. Reactionary policies and moratoriums almost always rushed and neither encourage thoughtful technological expansion nor protect the constituents.

Wireless carriers, tower companies, and industry associations need to provide better substantive guidance to their member constituents including model applications and construction/design criteria. They should truly encourage shared infrastructure use especially in dense areas where multiple providers want access to existing poles. These groups and companies should also be more forthright in their marketing materials and in answering legitimate questions and concerns by public entities.

We, as advisors to landowners and municipalities, will continue to help educate the public about the small cell leases and policies. Most landowners and municipalities are underrepresented and ill-informed when it comes to responding to the wireless industry's requests and/or demands. We hope that by highlighting the top 10 things the industry doesn't tell you about small cells, that you can better decide how to accomplish your goals. That small cell deployment will not be allowed to grow unchecked and unabated by an uninformed populace.

 

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.

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…]

AT&T Forecasts 6,700 New Macrocells from 2017-2022

In a presentation at the Cohen and Company’s 44th Annual Technology, Media, and Telecom conference, AT&T’s CTO and President of AT&T Labs Krish Prabhu indicated that AT&T believes that small cells will make up the substantial majority of their future cell tower and cell site development over the next 5 years.   In response to a question on how small cells will fit into their future 5G, fixed wireless, and IOT networks, Prabhu indicates that AT&T has approximately 90% of their macrocell network that they expect to be in place in the next five years already standing.   However, they have only deployed 5-10% of the total count of small cells that they expect to have at 2022. [Read more…]