Radio-frequency spectrum deployment, 5G wireless communications infrastructure installation and the placement of equipment to support uses of Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) wireless communications applications, are all factors that will boost the tower business, according to Joe Mullin, the chief technology officer at InSite Wireless Group. In the area of new construction, small companies that develop towers have good opportunities ahead, especially in suburban and rural areas, he said. Mullin spoke earlier this year at the AGL Local Summit in Newport Beach, California.(
Mullin has responsibility for technology strategy and data analytics at InSite Wireless Group. The company has nearly 2,000 towers in North America, the Caribbean and Australia, along with 60 distributed antenna system (DAS) networks. In growing its portfolio of towers, Mullin said, InSite Wireless Group has acquired smaller companies, developed its own towers and formed relationships with developers to find good-quality opportunities. He said that people in a community or region who have good relationships with wireless carriers and municipalities can build stronger business opportunities to produce good towers.
“Many great things are going on that will help the tower business,” Mullin said. T-Mobile US will put its 600-MHz spectrum to use, adding antennas and new sites as needed. He noted that the FCC action of assigning TV stations to new channels to implement results of its broadcast spectrum incentive auction creates more business for tower companies. If AT&T and Sprint merge as they intend to do, Mullin said, the combination will be a stronger company that will be able to spend more on wireless infrastructure.
As carriers install 5G wireless communications equipment on towers and small cells, Mullin said, the new equipment may not completely replace 4G equipment. “It will be an enhancement to 4G where it makes sense,” he said. “For the tower owners, this is all more equipment on the tower. Add to that the equipment to use millimeter-wave frequency bands, and you have additional deployments on the tower.”
In Mullin’s view, all of this is good news for towers. He also mentioned CBRS as another opportunity for using more spectrum in additional ways to serve the increasing demand for data carried by mobile networks. “Many good things on the technology side are coming out that will not hurt towers; they will help towers,” he said.
FCC Small Cell Order
On Sept. 26, 2018, the FCC adopted a small cell order that affects contracts between carriers and local governments. Many cities and counties sued the FCC to overturn the order, and the legal action is pending before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth District. While noting the resistance from municipalities, Mullin said steps taken at the federal and state level to limit local regulation of wireless facility construction has yielded some advantages for wireless carriers.
“Historically, this is a country built on property rights,” Mullin said. “Cities are concerned about giving up control over their areas. It is helpful to the carriers. For our business, it could be good and bad. I don’t see a benefit that won’t be outweighed by some of the challenges, because if you have a law that’s dictating a shot clock for approval of certain facilities, is it a small cell or is it a tower? It doesn’t start with this being legislated as opposed to being part of a free market. A lot remains to be seen on that one.”
For Mullin, from the tower perspective, it goes back to the fundamentals. He said good-quality sites at good locations that are well secured are good for the business. He said some with the carriers’ interests in mind may want to force the matter, saying, ‘By the way, this rule is out there and there’s a limit on what can be charged.” To an extent, that is a threat, he said. But if he had to bet, he believes the property right is going to carry the day. “It’s going to be an unfunded or nonfunded mandate,” he said. “I don’t think the municipalities are going to like it.”
Currently, Mullin said, each carrier is approaching city governments individually to apply for permits to install small cells. He said each carrier has its own priorities and strategy. Since the beginning of commercial wireless communications, he said, each carrier has wanted to control its own network and not be involved with its competitors. He cited the example of the 1980s, when cellular networks were starting to be built and every hilltop had two towers on it — the days before collocation.
Now, in the cityscape, Mullin observed, the first carrier to install pole-mounted equipment — small cells — wants to deploy poles in the best places for a competitive advantage. Mullin said that when the second carrier comes in, the first carrier says, “I really don’t want to share with him.” And the second carrier says, “I don’t want to share with him anyway. I want to do it on my own.”
“So now what happens is if you take this to a conclusion?” Mullin asked. “If you go to most intersections with four corners, each will have a carrier’s pole on three or four corners. Not only is this inefficient, but you’re going to have a clutter factor. Can municipalities take some more control of this? Can we learn from history and move toward collocation to make small cells a more efficient and aesthetically pleasing solution, given the fact that we know we have to bring the signal close to the people?”
Antenna Space for Public Safety
Turning to the subject of tower companies providing antenna space for the nationwide public safety broadband network being built by AT&T under a contract from the First Respondent Network Authority (FirstNet), Mullin said that the FirstNet network has to cover rural areas that will require new leases for space on existing towers and sometimes new towers. He said AT&T is taking advantage of the build-out to expand is commercial network coverage, too.
“For the rural areas, FirstNet is really good for our business,” Mullin said. “Many rural towers have excess capacity. Also, the big push for broadband availability in rural areas can take many forms, as with the major carriers as a traditional offering or through the Citizens Broadband Radio Service. It could be through new entrants to the mobile network business. It could be through local wireless internet service providers. There’s a whole raft of things that come up in the rural areas now that are good opportunities.”
The next AGL Local Summit is scheduled for Sept. 19, 2019, in Washington, DC. Visit www.aglmediagroup.com/localsummits.