5G will be a transformative moment for the wireless industry as operators provide the new, expansive services made possible by multi-gigabit speeds and minimal latency, Marc Ganzi, Digital Bridge CEO, told an audience at last week’s Wireless West Conference, held in Los Angeles. The wireless infrastructure industry will have to transform, too, through technological convergence to provide an estimated 1.2 million small cells, miles of fiber optics and computing pushed to the edge of the networks.
Digital Bridge itself is a prime example of convergence, with ownership of companies across multiple platforms, including macrotowers, small cells, wholesale data center solutions, enterprise-class data centers, neutral-host distributed network systems and fiber optics.
Ganzi challenged the audience members to think bigger and expand beyond towers to serve the operators’ needs. “How do you stay relevant?” he said. “We should be in the business of delivering networks. We are not in silos anymore. Convergence is now. It is not something ethereal or happening in the distant future.”
The 5G buildout will be a complicated build that will take place over the span of seven to eight years, Ganzi forecasted. “It will involve a lot of the pieces of the ecosystem – fiber optics, data centers and small cells — that the wireless industry, the tower industry in particular, hasn’t always been a part. These are complex things that have to all fit within an ecosystem that works harmoniously together,” he said.
Fiber optics will be a critical component of 5G because it is the “connective tissue” of the network, whether it linking a Wi-Fi node, a small cell, an indoor DAS system, an outdoor macrosite or mini-macro. “We are beginning to see companies like Zayo and Crown Castle International where the lines are blurring. They are building both the small cells and the fiber to backhaul them,” Ganzi said.
On the backend, software will define 5G networks and will serve as the catalyst that helps the carriers make money. “SDN allows the operator to deliver the most efficient user experience across the network,” Ganzi said. “That’s really, really hard. It will demand a lot of engineering.”
Also at the backend of the network, and just as important, are the data centers. Ganzi sees a lot of opportunity there. Digital Bridge has been investing a good deal of capital in them, finding the business model to be similar to the tower industry. “The data center industry is where towers were 10 years ago when 80 percent of the towers were owned by the carriers, very fragmented,” Ganzi said. “Currently, 70 percent of data centers are owned by enterprises.”
The wireless infrastructure industry must seek to understand how operators’ needs are changing with the advent of 5G and learn how to meet them. “If you want to be a critical partner, you have to change how you think about MLAs, leases, new sites,” he said. “Speed and accuracy are paramount. Owning and building the different elements of the network is critical if you expect your phone to ring.”
J. Sharpe Smith
J. Sharpe Smith joined AGL in 2007 as contributing editor to the magazine and as editor of eDigest email newsletter. He has 27 years of experience writing about industrial communications, paging, cellular, small cells, DAS and towers. Previously, he worked for the Enterprise Wireless Alliance as editor of the Enterprise Wireless Magazine. Before that, he edited the Wireless Journal for CTIA and he began his wireless journalism career with Phillips Publishing, now Access Intelligence. Sharpe Smith may be contacted at: email@example.com.
In 2013, Marc Ganzi stood at a crossroads. His company Global Tower Partners had sold its towers to American Tower. Although he could have continued to specialize in cell tower development, an area in which he had been immensely successful, Ganzi instead opted to diversify and invest in the entire communications infrastructure (“comm-infra,” as he calls it) ecosystem.
“There has to be an understanding of your customer, and there has to be a belief that the way we have done things in the past does not necessarily predicate how we will do business in the future,” Ganzi told AGL Magazine in an interview during a tour of the company’s headquarters in Boca Raton, Florida.
He cofounded Digital Bridge Holdings, and since then, the company has made good on that vision by investing in distributed network systems, small cells, fiber optics, data centers and interconnection services, along with macro cells, both domestically and internationally.
Tower Industry at a Crossroads
Now, it is the tower industry that stands at a crossroads. In serving wireless carriers, the industry must embrace change to remain relevant to its customers, according to Ganzi.
“The winners in the successful ownership and management of wireless infrastructure in the next 10 years will be the ones that understand what the customer wants from a deployment partner,” Ganzi said.
Today, smartphones have become an essential hub of people’s lives, from executing banking and other business transactions, such as reading work emails, to listening to music, watching videos, and communicating with peers through social media. Advancing consumer needs for data puts a lot of pressure on the hardware (or mobile device) to perform, Ganzi said.
— Jeff Tobe, author of Coloring Outside the Lines
To remain relevant, the tower industry needs to take a more holistic view of the carriers’ wireless infrastructure connectivity needs, Ganzi said. Delivering this needed bandwidth requires new investment. The industry will need to cross five different points of presence: macro sites, small cells, distributed network systems, fiber and highly secure radio access points (or data centers).
“As it becomes more in focus, it is less about the towers and more about the fiber-fed infrastructure and how you connect the various points of presence and ultimately to the radio access room to the content and where you tie into the cloud,” Ganzi said.
Along with investing in macro towers through Vertical Bridge, Mexico Tower Partners and Andean Tower Partners, Digital Bridge has moved in a number of different directions. In the fall of 2015, Digital Bridge entered the business of designing, building, owning and operating distributed fiber-fed networks for use by wireless carriers and venue owners by leading a $1.4 billion recapitalization of ExteNet Systems. It quickly followed up that deal with a bolt-on to ExteNet when it purchased Telecommunications Properties in May of 2016. The company designs, builds and operates distributed antenna system and small cell networks inside high-profile venues. As of June 2017, the business owned and operated more than 350 networks, 16,300 nodes and 3,200 miles of proprietary fiber.
Digital Bridge then completed the convergence cycle when it entered the enterprise-class data center business by acquiring DataBank in July 2016. DataBank then quickly made two acquisitions, buying select 365 Data Center assets in Pittsburgh and Cleveland and picking up Utah-based C7, which owns and operates three facilities in Salt Lake City. With new facilities under construction in Atlanta and a third asset in Dallas, DataBank will have 13 properties nationwide. Not done there, Digital Bridge decided to enter the hyperscale cloud storage data center business, buying one of the largest providers of wholesale enterprise data centers: Santa Clara, California-based Vantage, from SilverLake Partners. Today, Digital Bridge owns and operates more than 16 data centers, with five assets under development and construction across the United States. Digital bridge has invested nearly $2 billion in the sector.
Vertical Market Opportunities
Digital Bridge’s investment in ExteNet increased its access to the verticals (customers with specialized needs) across enterprise wireless, which includes enhancing coverage in key sports and entertainment venues, medical, higher education, hospitality and commercial office buildings.
“We approach each of those verticals differently,” Ganzi said. “Sports/entertainment was a huge strength at Telecommunications Properties, and we continue to book victories there with an integrated approach under the ExteNet flag. In medical, we are just scratching the surface. We’ve had a couple of universities — University of Texas, Auburn and University of Michigan. Those are tough networks to build because the carriers have not taken them yet, but in time, they will. The need is just too compelling from a consumer, research and higher-education need.”
The Next Frontier
Digital Bridge’s companies have deployed in more than 200 commercial office buildings and hotels. The goal is to continue to find cost-effective solutions for the smaller indoor venues. “Hospitality is fertile ground, and we continue to invest there,” Ganzi said. “Finding solutions for hotels with fewer than 400 keys is critical, just as it is for office assets sub-500,000 square feet. Then, the next frontier or pain point in the network will be solutions for hotels with fewer than 150 rooms and office space less than 100,000 square feet.”
ExteNet is heavily involved in the commercial office building segment and has exclusive access rights to more than 180 office properties. Networks will be deployed within those buildings where there is sufficient carrier demand. Where the economics don’t support deployment in an office building, the solution may be to connect multiple buildings at once. Digital Bridge has been working on creating these wide-area, in-building networks in multiple commercial office buildings.
“If you can build a significant collocation facility in one building and connect it over fiber to five other buildings, it can make the economics work,” Ganzi said. “You can provide the ‘meet me rooms’ for all the fiber companies to get access to those buildings, provide enterprise-based wireless solutions for the tenants in the buildings, mobile connectivity for the major carriers, then you layer in Wi-Fi and public safety and you have created a really unique network that achieves the objectives of all constituents involved and saves everyone cost — this is the true shared telecom infrastructure model. It is something we are spending a lot of time on.”
One-stop Infrastructure Shop
The original business plan for Digital Bridge was to provide multiple ways to serve its carrier relationships in the mobile infrastructure space by having separate platforms to invest in the distinct components that make networks function at a high level, while also making use of all of the businesses to work in concert to deploy integrated solutions for customers. But at this time, carriers are not looking for a one-stop shop for all their infrastructure needs.
“I don’t think the carriers wake up every day and think about how to converge their networks,” Ganzi said. “Carriers do not see infrastructure as a holistic real estate cost — yet. I want to emphasize that word ‘yet’ because I believe they are beginning to. U.S. mobile carriers — AT&T, for example — now look at what portion of their costs are related to delivering the customer experience as a total cost per byte. The real question for us as a supplier to AT&T is, ‘How can we deliver a good value proposition that is seamless and easy for the carrier, while lowering their total cost of bandwidth delivery?’”
Digital Bridge does business with AT&T across multiple platforms, including macro sites, small cells and data centers. “We continue to probe them about how else we can help them — where we can reduce costs and speed up velocity,” Ganzi said.
Being diversified helps Digital Bridge command a more senior audience at the carriers, Ganzi said. Its portfolio of 6,800 towers, 18,000 nodes and 3,200 miles of owned fiber can fulfill the carriers’ needs in a number of ways.
“We can be a relevant partner to carriers,” Ganzi said. “We can help them achieve their objectives, which are inevitably: densification, capacity, coverage and cost synergies across the entire mosaic of our infrastructure.”
The 5G Future
With carriers attempting historically unheard-of data speeds and low-latency parameters, the pressure will be on wireless infrastructure to do things differently than it has in the past — or it won’t happen.
“I am the eternal optimist, and I see a lot of promise in the future of network deployments,” Ganzi said. “The promise of 5G will only be met if we as an industry can answer the bell on infrastructure in a way that is cost-effective, where the customer receives good value and the network gets delivered on time, and it performs well.”
The next generation of wireless networks will need many types of communications assets, from macro cells, small cells and DAS to fiber optics, centralized radio access networks (C-RANs) and data centers. Digital Bridge is intent on amassing a variety of assets to serve all carriers’ needs, as well as cloud and content players. It shares space in its airy, understated offices in Boca Raton with Vertical Bridge, which has accumulated assets in buildings, rooftops, utility attachments and macro cells, all as part of a turnkey real-estate communications solution.
“I take it personally when people call us a tower company,” said Bernard Borghei, senior vice president of operations and a cofounder of Vertical Bridge. “We are no longer a tower company. We are a real-estate solution provider. We have all these different types of assets to meet the demands of today’s advanced technology leading into 5G and beyond.”
Even the real estate under suburban towers may come in handy as locations for micro data centers as wireless providers push their data centers closer to the edge of the network, according to Alex Gellman, CEO and a cofounder of Vertical Bridge. “If C-RAN is to be located at specific sites, we look at marketing the land under our sites for a C-RAN hub,” he said.
Outside the lines
During its short history, Digital Bridge has made six investments, including two in data centers, giving it $6.8 billion in assets under management. Ganzi seems to relish taking his formula of “fast, flexible and friendly” and pushing it outside the border of the tower industry and beyond the border of the United States.
“We have come a long way in our 24 years of doing this, but by no means have we perfected anything,” Ganzi said. “We are still learning. That is the fun part. We believe if you have a great market opportunity, great management teams and you seed them with the requisite capital, infrastructure, back office and discipline, it will accrete to a good investment and return for our investors.”
J. Sharpe Smith is senior editor of the AGL eDigest. He joined AGL in 2007 as contributing editor to the magazine and as editor of eDigest email newsletter. He has 27 years of experience writing about industrial communications, paging, cellular, small cells, DAS and towers. Previously, he worked for the Enterprise Wireless Alliance as editor of the Enterprise Wireless Magazine. Before that, he edited the Wireless Journal for CTIA and he began his wireless journalism career with Phillips Publishing, now Access Intelligence.
March 28, 2017 —
Digital Bridge Holdings, along with Public Sector Pension Investment Board and TIAA Investments, has purchased Vantage Data Centers, a hyper-scale data center operator whose customer base includes cloud service providers and large enterprises.
Vantage has four data centers on the flagship Santa Clara, California, campus, two more under construction, and a second large-scale campus under development.
In July 2016, Digital Bridge first entered into the enterprise-class data center business when it acquired DataBank, a North American provider of enterprise-class data center solutions including collocation, managed services, as well as cloud and network services. DataBank, in turn, acquired the network-neutral data center facilities of 365 Data Centers in January 2017, which included interconnection assets.
The data center space, which consists of hundreds of middle market companies, is going through a wave of consolidation that is similar to what happed to the tower industry from 2005 to 2013, according to Ganzi.
“We have found that given our access to capital, and our ability to build platforms and to do roll ups, we are in a good position to execute that same strategy in the data center space,” Marc Ganzi, co-founder and CEO of Digital Bridge, said in an interview with AGL eDigest earlier this year.
The vertical industries within the data center space — interconnect facilities, enterprise data storage, and wholesale, hyperscale cloud computing — are also converging.
“Obviously, we think interconnect is a great business. The ability to create an environment where carriers can cross-connect creates a very fertile ecosystem,” Ganzi said. “The enterprise data storage business feels very tower-like. These are Fortune 500 companies signing five-, 10- to 20-year leases with us.”
The third business segment — wholesale, hyperscale cloud computing — is very specialized, according to Ganzi. Potential customers include the likes of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Dell.
“What we like about this space is the long-term, non-cancelable leases, investment grade tenants, and secure, sticky environments, where they are not going to leave,” Ganzi said. “Again, a lot like towers. That is an interesting space and one that we are spending a lot of time on.”
RBC Capital Markets and DH Capital served as financial advisors, and Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett LLP acted as legal advisor to Vantage in connection with the transaction. Jones Day acted as lead M&A counsel, Kleinbard LLC acted as investment structure counsel, and Ernst and Young LLP served as accounting advisor to Digital Bridge. Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP acted as legal advisor to PSP Investments, and Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP acted as legal advisor to TIAA Investments. TD Securities together with CIT Bank, N.A., RBC Capital Markets, and SunTrust Robinson Humphrey provided debt financing commitment for the acquisition.
September 17, 2015 — The tower business is not going away, but managing the convergence of technologies and networks will be the key for wireless infrastructure providers to meet the needs of carriers in 5G and beyond, Marc Ganzi, Digital Bridge CEO, said in a keynote address, Sept. 16, at the Tower and Small Cell Summit.
“Get ready to be versatile and to learn how to provide multiple types of infrastructure and how to shift capacity across the network. Those are the types of partners that carriers are going to want going forward,” Ganzi said.
The tower or macrosite side of the business is very healthy, Ganzi said, with 6 percent to 12 percent annual growth. “There is a lot of investment and a lot of sites getting built. Thousands of macrosites are being deployed. It is an incredibly important, vital component of the ecosystem,” he said.
However, Ganzi said that Wall Street investors take a much broader view of towers, dividing the communications infrastructure, or comm-infra, industry into five subsets: macrosites, distributed network services (aka DAS), collocation facilities/data centers, dark and lit fiber (interconnect/backhaul), and the Cloud.
“The thunder that towers enjoyed over the last two decades is now being shared with other components of the ecosystem,” he said.
Consumers and their data demands – full motion video, downloading music, content-based programs — have forced carriers to improve their networks, which is forcing wireless infrastructure providers to look beyond macrosites.
“We have to think about how we are going to remain relevant to our consumers, the carriers, going forward. Compared with the early years of cell tower development, it is a much more complex value proposition,” Ganzi said. “We have to think, not just about macrosites, but we are forced to think about small cells, about interconnectivity, about backhaul, about collocation, and about the Cloud and hosted services.”
The industry must figure out how the different comm-infra subsets fit together, Ganzi told the audience.
“We all love to get ourselves into silos, saying ‘I’m in the collocation business or the small cell business or the backhaul business or macrotowers,’” he said. “Really, if you want to survive and evolve, you need to be in the networking business: building, managing and optimizing networks.”
Ganzi said he watches which mergers transpire and listens to the carriers to understand industry trends. As examples of convergence, he mentioned the merger of Sunesys, a fiber-optic networks provider, with tower/DAS provider Crown Castle International, and fiber-optic provider Zayo’s entrance into wholesale collocation through the purchase of infrastructure-as-a-service provider Latisys. The mergers are critical to meeting the carriers’ needs, he said.
“Convergence is really important because of how carriers are putting out their RFPs these days. It is not just bidding on towers or small cells or strands of dark fiber. RFPs are now interplayed, where you have to demonstrate multiple capabilities.
It is about a delivery system of bandwidth,” Ganzi said. “Infrastructure providers today are no longer single-trick ponies. You have to be able to deliver macrosites, small cells, backhaul, collocation and to a certain degree managed services.”
How will 5G networks be built? Ganzi said that macrosites, small cells and DAS will remain the core of the network, but what will change is how data runs over those networks.
“Capacity will be spread out to the edge of the network. The only way you can do that is through a fiber-based architecture, connected to macrosites, to small cells and to Wi-Fi, all of which you bring back to one common radio room,” he said. “That requires convergence: collocation facilities merging with fiber, merging with macros and merging with small cells. At the same time, hosted services provide the software piece of the network. The only way that 5G works is if all five pieces of the network work together.”
December 3, 2014 — When Global Tower Partners sold all of its U.S. towers, it might have seemed like Marc Ganzi left the tower industry. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the past year, he has been busy rebuilding his wireless infrastructure empire, investing in wireless infrastructure companies, raising capital and aggregating towers.
The tower industry has many success stories among the small private firms and the giant public companies. But Ganzi’s new company, Digital Bridge Holdings, which he formed with former Blackstone telecom chief Ben Jenkins, bridges the divide between private and public, taking on the advantages of each. It is, indeed, in a league of its own.
In fact, in the last 90 days, Digital Bridge has amassed more than a billion dollars in the private markets. It may be the Ganzi halo-effect but investors continue to be enamored with the prospects of tower aggregation.
Digital Bridge Holdings announced last month that it had raised $750 million in equity for Vertical Bridge, its U.S. tower arm, through investments by leading institutions, foundations, family offices and individuals, as well as The Jordan Company and major new commitments from Goldman Sachs Infrastructure Partners and Stonepeak Infrastructure Partners.
In September, Vertical Bridge Holdings secured more than $500 million of incremental capital, including new commitments from The Jordan Company, The Edgewater Funds and additional capital from Digital Bridge Holdings. Vertical Bridge also announced that it has closed on a $270 million senior credit facility led by TD Securities, Deutsche Bank and CIT as part of this recent round of capital formation.
Ganzi credits the confidence in the robust nature of the wireless industry and the private status of Digital Bridge for their early successful investing.
“I believe we have proven that we can raise capital very fast and efficiently. I don’t know if we could have had the same type of success if we were public,” Ganzi said. “The formation of capital on this scale would not have been possible, unless we believed there was still an asset aggregation opportunity within the United States to buy and build sites and support our customers.”
Digital Bridge began in earnest in November of 2013, and a year later is managing three different investments. It has invested in the United States tower market through Vertical Bridge, the Mexican market through Mexico Tower Partners and in the Chinese tower market through a small local firm.
Vertical Bridge has been active in the U.S. market having closed 23 transactions for a total of 1,051 sites. It has plans to close another 22 acquisitions before the end of the year.
“Vertical Bridge has very quietly amassed the largest private tower portfolio in the United States,” Ganzi said. “We think there is an opportunity to acquire an additional thousand sites in the next six months. We are also building quite a few new tower sites now as well … I am thrilled that we have gotten our new tower build team up to speed and in full execution mode.”
Ganzi has built Vertical Bridge with many of his former operating partners from Global Tower Partners, which itself is known for becoming a tower aggregating giant. Vertical Bridge was founded by Alex Gellman, (the former president and COO of GTP), along with Bernard Borghei (former senior vice president of operations at GTP) and Michael Belski, (former senior vice president of leasing and marketing at GTP). Ganzi has also enlisted GTP alumnus Mark Serwinowski (the former vice president of IT for GTP) as the CIO at Digital Bridge Holdings.
Ganzi is engaged in the merger-and-acquisition activities at Vertical Bridge alongside the company’s senior vice president of mergers and acquisitions Robert Paige, who formerly ran the TMT banking practice at Brown Brothers Harriman in New York, which speaks volumes about his growth aspirations. “All the critical operational aspects that we had at GTP, we have recreated at Vertical Bridge,” he said. “We have rebuilt the M&A practice, as well as our new tower development capabilities at a very high gear.”
Developing a proven management team that has performed well across multiple markets is one of the keys to gaining the trust of investors, Ganzi said. The success of GTP with the sale of its portfolio to American Tower for $4.8 billion looms large in investors’ minds.
“Vertical Bridge is a great story for our new investors,” he said. “Alex [Gellman] and I have been together for 20 years as partners and there is a depth in the quality of leadership behind Alex. We had a great team at GTP and that was a unique group of professional managers that achieved great things together — I am eternally grateful to all them. Thankfully, many of them decided to continue to work with Alex and me again. Investors liked the GTP story and that outcome. Our hope is to deliver again.”
Don’t expect Ganzi to slow up anytime soon. One of the keys to the tower industry is scale, which allows access to the debt markets in beneficial ways, he said.
“That is something that we particularly excelled in at GTP. We were able to have a conversation with the rating agencies that was similar to the public companies. We had great success in raising CMBS [commercial mortgage-backed securities] and ABS [asset-backed securities] debt on terms that were comparable to the public companies,” he said.
While at GTP, Ganzi and Gellman learned that once a tower aggregator gets past 2,500 towers and more than $50 million in cash flow, it’s a different business.
“To really achieve the economies of scale in the tower business, you need to get to a size where you are generating a lot of free cash flow,” he said. “One of the secrets to GTP was we were able to access debt instruments and debt pricing akin to the public companies and not be public. That was part of the magic of GTP and we believe now Vertical Bridge as well, as being private allows us to aggregate capital quickly and efficiently.”
Comm Infrastructure Beyond Towers
As sold as Ganzi is on towers, he still sees opportunities in other related areas of wireless infrastructure, such as fiber, data centers and small cells.
“Investors really crave the safety and the yield that comes from long-term contracted cash flows from investment-grade carriers,” he said. “It is a story that transcends towers and is now permeating other asset classes, whether it is fiber, data centers or small cells.”
Ganzi and his partner Jenkins pay homage to the diversification that John Malone, chairman of Liberty Media and several other giants, achieved in media and cable as he discusses the importance of exploring the different facets that come together to make up the wireless infrastructure ecosystem. He sees opportunities in diversifying into long-haul fiber and cloud sourcing, as well.
“There are a lot of different ways to think about communications infrastructure. We are thinking through it carefully as to where they intersect,” he said. “Investor appetite is really strong for other facets of communications infrastructure. We think there is a lot to be done in the fiber space and in the small cell space.”
J. Sharpe Smith is the editor of AGL Link and AGL Small Cell Link newsletters.