Are Three Towers Really Necessary?

Zoning Board Questions Whether They Should Be Forced to Allow Three Towers Within 300' of Each Other

First- start by reading this news article about how the Cape Elizabeth, ME planners are dealing with a request from Tower Specialists to build a new tower near an existing Crown Castle tower that has already been slated to be torn down and replaced with a new tower on the adjacent property. In the image below, the site to the right is the existing Crown Castle tower which the article indicates will be torn down in 2019. The location to the left is the new Crown Castle tower.

Why would Crown Castle tear down an existing tower and build a new one next door?

Because they couldn't come to agreeable terms with the existing landowner to extend their ground lease on the existing property. We are contacted regularly by landowners for proposed Crown Castle leases and the first thing we look at is whether there is an existing Crown Castle tower near the proposed location to see whether this is occurring. Most of the time we find that there are existing towers nearby. In some cases, Crown is moving the tower because the existing owner is seeking too high of a lease rate for an extension of the lease or because they are no longer willing to lease their land for a tower. In other cases, the existing tower needs substantial structure modifications to accommodate additional equipment and it is cheaper over time from a Capex and Opex standpoint to build a new tower. And in rare cases, we believe Crown Castle will build a new tower out of spite because they don't like the landowner.

To make this even more interesting, if you look at the image below, you will see that there is a second tower on the same property. The Crown Castle tower appears to have 3-4 wireless carriers collocated on it, while the other tower has 1-2.  Apparently there are 6 towers on the subject property including some smaller ones not visible in the photos. 

So, I Get Why Crown Castle Is Building a Tower, But Why Is a Third One Proposed?

Good question. We heard directly from the property owner who is also a tower developer.  He shared with us that he did tell Crown that the family wasn't going to renew the lease.  He proposed the new tower after Crown submitted to relocate the existing tower on the adjacent property.   

The property owner in the article suggests that the carriers all want to be at 180' (even though only one carrier was at that height previously on the existing tower).  The Town Board has required him to come back with detailed RF propagation maps that show that the carriers all have to have 180' as justification for a third tower here. While I am sure that the property owner can find a radio frequency engineer that will provide maps that purport to show a difference – there really isn't a significant one between 170' and 180' especially since those carriers who are lower than 180' on the existing tower already built the nearby cell sites in their network to match up with the coverage from this tower and vice versa.  

How Do Landowners Know if They Are Pushing Too Hard?

Unfortunately, signing a backup lease with an adjacent property owner is now standard operating procedure for tower companies when negotiating an extension of an existing tower lease. The tower companies will take the term sheet they negotiate and show it to the stubborn  landowner as demonstration of their willingness to move the tower. For landowners who are approached for a new lease, we advise they consider the possibility that they will spend time negotiating and finalizing a lease and money on hiring an attorney or a consultant or both to review the lease while not getting anything in return. For landowners who have an existing tower on their property, the "equation" for whether you are asking for too much is a difficult one because it depends upon the following variables:

1. Cost to relocate the tower

2. Probable lease rate on alternative site location

3. Probability of success of getting zoning and other regulatory approvals

4. Ownership of the tower (does the tower company own the tower or does the carrier)

5. Number and identify of carriers on the existing tower

6. Time remaining until expiration

7. How much you are asking for

8. How difficult you have been to negotiate with in the past

Whether you have been approached for a new cell tower lease near an existing tower or you have an existing tower lease where you are negotiating for an extension, we can help. Give us a call to discuss further or contact us here.

 

 

 

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

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

"WHERE TOWERS DO NOT EXIST TODAY" – REALLY?

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

VERIZON ENTERS THE FRAY

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

ONLY A FEW HUNDREDS TOWERS?

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

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

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

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