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.

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.

Sprint’s Really Odd Antenna Configuration Proposal

On one of our municipal client's towers, Sprint submitted a request to replace three existing antennas with new antennas that add 2.5GHz capability to their equipment.  The subject tower is in a difficult zoning jurisdiction and one where Sprint really doesn't have any other options.   Their collocation rent was on the higher side but not unreasonably so- and the three other wireless service providers were all paying the same or higher rent.  

Because the antennas were the same size or smaller, we did not recommend a rent increase for them.  However, Sprint was adding remote radio units and other equipment so we recommended a fairly nominal increase.  Rather than accept the newly proposed lease terms, Sprint instead asked whether they could replace the existing equipment on the tower with three of these antennas and get a reduction in rent. 

Sprint Proposed Canister Antennas
Possible Sprint Replacement Antennas

The proposed antennas are larger than the existing antennas, but Sprint appears to be wanting to go from 9 panels to 3 of these antennas.  (Not 3 of the canisters)  These panels will accommodate all of Sprint's spectrum bands but would seemingly limit their capacity and number of simultaneous users.   These appear more suitable for a mini-macro as opposed to a macrocell, but I would welcome any thoughts readers have regarding this topic.  

At the end of the day, we advised the client that the value of their tower is its unique location, not the specific loading that Sprint is placing or removing from the tower.   Obviously, there will be situations where a reduction in loading or equipment would justify a reduction in lease rate, but this isn't one of them.  

Sprint Enters the Lease Renegotiation Game Again

A landowner client of ours received this email from LCC, a company allegedly acting on behalf of Sprint where they claim that if the landowner doesn't agree to concessions, that Lendlease will consider relocating the Sprint site.  

Screen shot of email from Sprint
Email from Sprint Representative to Landowner

If you receive a similar request from Sprint, LCC, or Lendlease or another cell tower lease optimization company, please contact us.  We can help you evaluate the proposal and determine whether it is probable that Sprint would move in the event you choose not to accept their proposed rent reduction.

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.

 

Steel in the Air – Wireless Predictions for 2017

2017 Start button

As we have done in years past, we look ahead to 2017 and share our forecasts for the coming year. All things considered, 2016 was a mediocre year for the industry. 2017 looks to be all about repositioning – meaning that while we don’t expect growth in CapEx, we do anticipate industry development in some areas and contraction in others. With that said, here goes:

1.  AT&T gets serious about small cells. Again.

For those of you who don’t recall, AT&T previously had an Antenna Solutions Group focused on both Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) and small cell deployments. While most of the emphasis was on DAS, there were a decent number of small cell deployments, although nowhere near the 40,000 small cells AT&T led the industry to believe they were going to deploy. We believe that AT&T will end up increasing its capital expenditures on small cells this year at the expense of building new macrocells. However, that doesn’t mean that AT&T will stop investing in macrocells altogether – see the next point.

2.  AT&T wins the FirstNet RFP and starts to deploy both FirstNet and AWS-3 spectrum via site modifications to existing macrocells.

Per our previous notes, we (and others) anticipate that AT&T wins the FirstNet contract. As we have pointed out before, if AT&T has done 700MHz modifications at a site previously, the old antennas may be able to accommodate the additional FirstNet 700MHz spectrum, but that doesn’t mean they can accommodate AWS-3 frequencies. The AWS-3 spectrum is in the 1700MHz and 2100MHz ranges, and we are just starting to see modification requests from AT&T that cover the full range of the spectrum in both 700MHz and 1700-2100MHz bands. We anticipate that this continues. Note that this doesn’t mean that AT&T will pay more rent for all modifications.

3.  Verizon gets slightly more serious about small cells. Again.

In 2016, it seemed that Verizon had slowed down its deployment of small cells as compared to 2015. While we don’t have access to the number of small cells they deployed via Crown Castle, we do know that the municipalities that have retained us experienced a downtick in the number of new small cell applications. We suspect that Verizon has revised its strategy on small cells after discovering what does and didn’t work through trial and error in 2016. Previously extensive efforts by Verizon to enter master lease agreements with municipalities will pay dividends in 2017 as Verizon will experience quicker speed to market than other wireless carriers who haven’t negotiated such agreements in bulk.

4.  T-Mobile will focus on adding capacity to their network no matter how costly.

In 2016 T-Mobile negotiated and presumably signed a significantly increased number of leases to add equipment to existing DAS systems across the US. Furthermore, we have heard (but haven’t yet confirmed) that T-Mobile is entering collocation agreements on rural towers to avoid roaming agreements with rural carriers. Our experiences with rural tower-owning clients seem to confirm this – but we don’t know whether their leases are representative of what is happening with all tower companies. We surmise that T-Mobile doesn’t want to spend cash building its DAS networks or new towers, which is why they may be willing to agree to higher than average lease rates. We also assume that T-Mobile needs desperately to add capacity and to do it quickly – which supports why they would be willing to jump on current DAS systems and collocate on existing towers.

5. Sprint will continue to spend historically low levels of CapEx and somehow still convince market analysts that its spectrum holdings give it the flexibility to significantly limit spending on its network.

When Sprint announces its 3Q2016 fiscal year results in January, they will again surprise with lower than expected CapEx. Reduced lowered CapEx from Sprint could very well continue into the middle of 2017 based upon the limited activity we are seeing from Sprint now. Tower companies have already rightfully stopped projecting any income from Sprint in 2017 with the expectation that if it comes, we can all just be grateful. Despite these harbingers, market analysts will still continue to rate Sprint a Buy primarily due to the potential for a merger with T-Mobile which seems to be increasing slightly in probability every day. If Sprint seriously believes this merger will take place, they would be wise not to invest CapEx.

6. More fiber companies will be acquired and the values paid per route mile (especially metro fiber) will continue to increase.

We know that this isn’t that much of a reach regarding a prediction, but it is an important one nonetheless. 2016 saw several fiber acquisitions: Zayo/Electric Lightwave, Windstream/Earthlink, CenturyLink/Level3, and Crown Castle/Fibernet to name a few. Notably, both Zayo and Crown Castle are actively positioning themselves to be “the” small cell metro fiber providers. These companies know that fiber is the backbone of any 5G/small cell/fixed wireless network and that controlling costs of the fiber is paramount to the wireless carrier’s ability to keep pricing of wireless plans low.

7.   Speaking of fiber, landowners will receive more requests than ever before for new fiber routed across their property.

We are just starting to see requests from Verizon and other carriers to bring in “redundant” fiber from different cross-property routes from existing wireless lease utility easements. Our research shows that with the advent of small cells, and C-RAN particularly, companies like Verizon need redundancy and are willing to pay for a second utility easement across the property so that an aloof contractor cannot cut both fiber cables at a singular location. Unfortunately for large incumbent fiber providers, this fiber won’t be lit fiber.

8. 2017 will be the year of cell site hardening.

With FirstNet likely being awarded to AT&T, and the FCC’s recent order requiring wireless carriers to disclose the percentage of their sites that are out of commission during emergencies, we anticipate that carriers will begin improving power backup systems at individual sites. Cell site hardening will translate to more on-site generators, which means lease expansions and increased rent to landowners and tower companies. Sprint and T-Mobile will need to play catch up to AT&T and Verizon, both of whom have previously begun site hardening agendas.

9.  Wireless carriers are doing more than just talking about what they consider to be a lopsided relationship with the tower companies, and clear and demonstrable proof of this will emerge in 2017.

To date, tower companies have largely ignored inquiries and very public comments from the carriers about “expensive and unsustainable” collocation rents and modification requests. Despite some slight downward pressure on tower company stocks and analysts’ questions at industry events, the tower companies haven’t yet felt any real pressure from this carrier positioning. However, we believe strongly that the wireless carriers aren’t sitting idly by but are instead actively seeking to relocate some of their more expensive sites. Whether these efforts are selective and focused primarily on “scaring” the tower companies, or they represent actual and significant savings on operating expenditures going forward, we don’t know. Either way, we believe that there will be clear proof of the extent of these efforts in 2017 and that this will negatively impact the tower companies.

10. The carriers will not deploy any real 5G in 2017.

Despite claims to the contrary by Verizon and others about their 5G-like systems, they aren’t mobile, and they aren’t 5G. Mobile 5G specifications aren’t expected until 2020, and even pre-specification systems won’t meet the eventual 5G standards. 5G preparation will continue in earnest in 2017, to include robust fiber deployment and small cell site acquisition. None of this will prevent the carriers from saying they are deploying 5G. (Stay tuned on this topic- we anticipate doing a workshop for financial and tower company clients in NYC and Boston in February to address the common questions and concerns we have been hearing from analysts and reporters regarding 5G).

It is unlikely that these projections will be 100% correct – and if I had to pick one projection where we are more likely to be wrong (and where we hope we are wrong) – it #5, that Sprint won’t be deploying CapEx this year in any sizeable amount. The tower companies have fared well over the past year, considering the lack of any real, sizeable revenue growth from one of the “Big Four” wireless carriers.

If you disagree with any of our projections, we’d love to hear why. If you want further information about how we arrived at the predictions or wish to discuss the likely winners and losers, we welcome the opportunity to set up a private (paid) consultation to discuss our beliefs further. We have no confidentiality agreements in place with the companies listed above – and to the extent that we do have confidential information about them, we won’t disclose it.

Sprint vs. Verizon Standoff on Network Reliability and Capex

Verizon wasn’t happy about Sprint stealing their “Can you hear me now?” spokesperson or Sprint’s efforts to suggest that Sprint’s network reliability performs within 1% of AT&T and Verizon‘s networks. Verizon issued their own press release full of pretty interesting facts that attempt to demonstrate that network reliability is important- but that Verizon’s network is far more extensive and they have devoted far more resources to their network performance. [Read more…]

5G and LTE-U Test Markets for Each Wireless Carrier

We were curious what markets we would start seeing modifications requests come in for new antennas on existing cell towers for 5G and LTE-U installations.   These trials in most cases will require new antennas with new frequency bands.   So we created the map that you can see below- or see the online version of the 5G and LTE-U Test Market map. [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…]

T-Mobile’s Rampant Success

Just thought this was worth sharing- a great article on T-Mobile’s Tremendous Success in the last quarter of 2015.  Also of interest is that Sprint seems to be churning its good established customers while adding new customers presumably at 1/2 of the rate of the other wireless service providers.  That can’t be a sustainable business model.

Wireless Adds and Drops
T-Mobile’s rampant success comes at the expense of other carriers- not from new additions.