An old story, “Acres of Diamonds,” became popular thanks to a lecture by Earl Nightingale about a South African farmer who exhausted his entire net worth looking for diamonds. He had sold his farm to pay for his prospecting, and the buyer later discovered that the farm contained massive deposits of diamonds. The same storehouse of value is contained within the municipal, county and state communications networks in the form of wireless infrastructure.
Wire and fiber are being left behind as interpersonal communications, entertainment and information, data for transportation and services and even power delivery are rapidly transitioning to wireless technology. The ownership and management of the wireless infrastructure — macro tower sites, fiber and microwave back haul, small cells and data centers — are rapidly being consolidated by a few companies. Because of their size and footprint, these companies have built relationships with major regional and national wireless customers: broadband providers, broadcasters, utilities, and first responders.
These few companies’ relationships with the tenants, their revenue source, depend upon the size and coverage of their wireless infrastructure footprint. The consolidation of the universe of wireless infrastructure has passed its tipping point, because there is only so much wireless infrastructure left to acquire. During the past eight to 10 years, these companies have acquired privately owned infrastructure. Meanwhile, the larger companies are swallowing up the smaller companies. This activity is good for the infrastructure owners, because the feeding frenzy has driven values to an all-time high. It is good for the tenants, too, because they have the benefit of experienced, resourceful providers that can offer ubiquitous coverage.
This is where the diamonds come in.
All of the government-owned, expensive wireless infrastructure can be sold or leased to the private sector for record high values, providing municipalities and counties with significant capital to deploy as needed. By negotiating the right terms and conditions in the sale agreement, the government entities can continue to enjoy the same use of the wireless infrastructure as ever with little or no operating costs. Because of the timing of this transition from wireline to wireless technology, municipalities, counties and states can capitalize on the market frenzy by extracting significant value from their existing resources while still having the ability to use those assets for their unique needs.
Tom Engel is a director at Strategic Tower Advisors. The core business at STA is to represent tower site sellers or buyers. Engel’s email address is [email protected] Engel will be speaking at IWCE 2021 in Las Vegas on Sept. 28 at 4 p.m., together with Bob and Tom Duchen of River Oaks Communications. IWCE has set aside an hour for Engel’s session, “Acres of Diamonds,” as part of the conference’s funding track. Click here for details.
April 5, 2016 — Compounding towers’ current growth worries is the anger of the carriers concerning rising escalator costs, usually set at 3 percent annually, according to Jennifer Fritzsche, Wells Fargo senior analyst. AT&T has openly criticized the tower model, saying that if the carrier is growing at only 1 percent, it doesn’t want a vendor growing faster.
“In the case of AT&T and Sprint, there is almost a perfect storm surrounding the public tower companies. Although I have followed AT&T for 17 years, I have never seen them publicly comment on a vendor so angrily, as they have the tower companies,” Fritzsche said in an arm chair interview with AGL Magazine’s executive editor and associate publisher Don Bishop at IWCE’s Network Infrastructure Forum, held last month.
Fritzsche noted the speculation that AT&T may be attempting to bypass the major public tower companies with their requests for proposals.
“Some say that AT&T is trying to muscle some of the smaller tower companies into lower escalations,” Fritzsche said. “The tower companies clearly have leverage with existing macro sites, but new incremental sites that are coming, if there is a purposeful move around the public tower companies, that is somewhat alarming.
“Part of this is probably posturing, because they are currently negotiating master leasing agreements with the two largest tower companies, but you have woken up the sleeping bear,” she added.
Fritzsche, who is a sell-side analyst, spoke about her March 4th downgrade of the tower sector and how it was misconstrued by some as being a negative judgement of the tower industry. Her actions — she kept American Tower at a buy, moved SBA to a hold and kept Crown at a hold – were based on the short-term prospects for revenue growth, she said.
“Will these stocks move quickly? I didn’t think they would. I don’t see the catalysts for this group in the near term,” Fritzsche said. “I would characterize it as a holding pattern. The carriers, which I follow, have a lot to digest right now. They just spent $45 billion at the AWS-3 auction, and they have the broadcast incentive auction coming.”
The timing of AT&T’s return to capex growth in towers is the subject of much uncertainty, according Fritzsche. “With one of the major customers of the tower industry not moving quickly, I did not see the upside of the revenue estimates that I have in place for the tower sector,” she said.
Deploying fiber in the ground is currently dominating AT&T’s capex, and it follows an industry trend toward using fiber to support wireline over the top (OTT) services, small cell deployment and macro backhaul.
“I don’t see that changing right now. They view fiber as the critical element to support, not only the OTT broadband connection, but longer term as the plumbing that will undergird the strength of their wireless network,” Fritzsche said.
While some criticized the AT&T/DirecTV deal, Fritzsche said he she liked the media play quite a bit. “Although linear TV is experiencing downward pressure, more video is being watched than ever through over the top (OTT) services and on mobile devices. Now, AT&T has a hand in each honey pot,” she said. A healthy AT&T will be good for towers in the long run.
March 24, 2016 — The wireless industry needs to change small cell deployment tactics and adopt a collaborative approach with zoning authorities or it will ruin its relationships with local municipalities, Allan Tantillo, senior director, national site development, T-Mobile, said in his keynote address at IWCE’s Network Infrastructure Form, Wednesday, in Las Vegas.
“What is important is that we really need to focus on the education and outreach to those that are impacted by our deployments, particularly in the small cell world,” Tantillo said.
Tantillo liken the current small cell deployment environment to the macrocell deployments of the late 1990s when the FCC issued spectrum for multiple carriers. The first two carriers aggressively filed applications with local jurisdictions without local support their cell site deployments, which cause political problems for later cell site proposals from other carriers.
“As a result, the other carriers were faced with moratoriums, and hostile municipalities and neighborhood associations. It made it much more difficult for the rest of us to overcome,” he said. “We are headed toward a similar thing in the small cell world. We have a couple who are charging ahead with their mini-macros. They are really not true small cells. They are using that gap and they are going to create a problem.”
T-Mobile has been able to accomplish its goals by taking a collaborative approach to working with broadcasters in the 700 MHz spectrum. It also is working closely with municipalities and utilities, sharing its wireless deployment plans. T-Mobile has developed a website, www.howmobileworks.com, and a small cell video to help the industry educate the municipalities, small cells, macrocell deployment issues and situations where temporary cell sites are required for special events.
“Our educational outreach and development materials and training help set the standard for what we are trying to do – to help others understand our strategy,” Tantillo said. “What we have found in the site development world is when people are educated they are much more likely work together with us to find reasonable solutions that work for both parties.”