Centerline Solutions, a Golden, Colorado-based company that specialized in developing, designing, building and maintaining wireless networks, closed its doors last week, laying off 202 employees and filing for Chapter 7 liquidation under the U.S. bankruptcy code.
The news was surprising, because Centerline was involved in high-growth areas of wireless such as 5G wireless communications, small cells and fiber. Centerline, begun in 2011 as a combination of ATECS and MC Squared Holdings, grew nearly 300 percent from 2014 to 2016 through a series of eight acquisitions and was named a top telecommunications company (#18) by Inc. 5,000.
Most recently, in 2016, Centerline expanded to the Southeast, purchasing Florida-based UCI Construction Services. In order to complete the UCI transaction and prepare Centerline for future growth, the company was recapitalized with an equity investment from Concentric Equity Partners and a new credit facility led by Bank of the West’s Commercial Banking Group.
Ian Ross of Concentric Equity Partners, told AGL eDigest, Centerline was closed because it could “never make money. There are only three customers (the tier one carriers) and they are very tough on their supply chain,” he said. “They want to squeeze all the margin out.”
Centerline also had trouble getting their customers to pay them on time, with payments sometimes delayed up to 120 days, according to Ross.
“We have to do a lot of work up front, millions of dollars’ worth of work for our customers, before we were even allowed to invoice them, and then you wait 30, 60, 90 days,” Ross said.
Centerline grew through acquisitions. UCI Construction was Centerline’s eighth purchase since its founding. Prior to UCI, its largest acquisition was Cascadia PM, a Washington-based leading provider of wireless project program management, in January 2015. Other acquisitions from included IDC Joint Venture (Hawaii, August 2015), Wireless Limited (Colorado, May 2015) and KbarM Consulting (Idaho, August 2014).
With the acquisition of UCI, Centerline increased its number of employees to a high of more 420. But by the time it had closed its doors, the staff had shrunk by a half.
“We tried to expand the business to serve more customers and provide more services, but we couldn’t make money at it so we ended up contracting,” Ross said. “There are only a few key customers, and they have lots of power. There are low barriers for entry into the industry for service providers to build out this infrastructure.”
Cutthroat competition among telecom service providers also took its toll on Centerline’s bottom line, as thousands of wireless telecom infrastructure service providers vie for the business of four (sometimes three) tier one carriers.
“An established company with insurance, safety, accounting and training has a hard time competing with three guys and a truck,” Ross said. “The carriers don’t see the value. They just give the job to the lowest bidder.”
RF Guys has partnered with Ehresmann Engineering to deliver cell tower/infrastructure mapping solutions.
RF Guys simplifies the data compilations and delivers high-definition sub-centimeter point cloud site data. The company uses remote sensing UAS, ground stations, ground penetrating radar, terrestrial LiDar and its own data acquisition and back-end processing.
Ehresmann Engineering is a tower engineering and manufacturing company that has been in the telecommunication industry for over 34 years. EEI designs, manufacturers, and installs tower and tower modifications. Its field services include tower inspections, tower modification, and new tower and foundation installations.
EEI’s unmanned aerial vehicle infrastructure imaging programs allow it to gather pictures, video, point clouds, RF measurements, and other data on towers. It also employs a terrestrial Lidar to gather highly accurate information on towers., EEI delivers the information through an internet portal, Needmore Reports, which is a cloud-based program that gives users a web interface to track and manage assets.
RF Guys has specific imaging solutions, and combined with Ehresmann’s engineering firm, it is able to provide a complete package to customers.
The field services and UAV operations of EEI complement RF Guys’s capability to provide complete services including structural engineering, tower and component manufacturing, field services, as well as UAV services. The different locations of EEI, based in Yankton, South Dakota, and RF Guy, with two locations in California, allows the companies to cover more territory economically with the UAV services.
“We are able to draw on the experience that each company has to provide the best quality product on the market and be able to responsive to our customer needs. There is no project too great for us to accomplish,” the companies said in a press release.
Duke Energy’s Charlotte-based wireless infrastructure team and St. Petersburg, Florida-based PT Access Networks have combined operations to create a joint venture under the new name PeakNet.
PeakNet provides macro site collocations, small cell attachments, and build-to-suit monopoles, including complete turnkey management of the process from site acquisition, to structure analysis, engineering, zoning and permitting, construction management, and ongoing upgrades and maintenance.
PT Access Networks was a part of Progress Energy, and it handled collocations on transmission assets as well as new build monopoles on existing raw land parcels. When, in 2012, Duke Energy merged with Progress Energy, it gained control of PT Access. The joint venture is now majority owned by Duke Energy, with a minority ownership by a capital investment group, which handles the executive leadership and runs the day-to-day operations.
“With access to Duke Energy’s utility structures and real estate assets we’re able to find competitive solutions to tough siting challenges,” said Michael Whitley, PeakNet vice president of business development. “We have hundreds of thousands of potential sites—many in the toughest areas to zone. We offer a diverse range of existing utility structures for collocation throughout our service area as alternatives to building new towers. Our extensive real estate portfolio helps us meet the growing 5G demands of our customers while reducing the proliferation of wireless structures.”
The joint venture has been in the works for a while. Duke Energy used to handle collocations internally, but it decided it would be more productive to let a joint venture run that part of the business. With the revised JV agreement between the two organizations, PeakNet now operates with an “arm’s length” relationship with Duke. It now has responsibility for all of the Carolinas and Florida and is finalizing the details on serving the Midwest transmission infrastructure holdings of Duke Energy.
“The ultimate goal is to serve any type of wireless communications collocation associated with the transmission infrastructure, raw land parcels, substations, and monopole development in all of Duke’s territory,” Whitley told AGL eDigest.
Bringing the Wireless and Utilities Together
Even though there a lot of potential for collocating wireless equipment on utility infrastructure, the two worlds notoriously have been at odds. Some utilities view wireless carriers as more of a nuisance being on their structure than a benefit. As a result, it can take weeks, maybe months, for a carrier to be able to restore an out-of-service antenna.
PeakNet bucks that paradigm, working continually to reduce its service level agreements in terms of the length of time for restoring out of service equipment.
“We work diligently to allow equipment to be repaired as quickly as possible,” Whitley said. “You have to work on all fronts to drive the importance of what carriers are trying to accomplish. It is our job to bring together that marriage of wireless and utilities, maximizing the potential of the assets and solving otherwise difficult siting challenges.”
PeakNet serves as a liaison between the utility and the wireless carrier, working to take the needs of both into consideration. “This can result in a more efficient process, shorter timelines, and ultimately be more cost-effective,” Whitley said.
“We do a good job of listening to carrier needs. The carriers want a reasonably priced asset access. They want the ability to get to the asset to service it if they have a problem,” Whitley said. “For the utility, safety is job number one. It can be a challenge to install carrier equipment on a structure that also carries high-voltage power lines, these installations need an uncompromising focus on safety.”
PeakNet is currently talking to the carriers about a solution where the antenna is installed below the power conductor as an option to further reducing costs and expediting maintenance requirements.
Gearing up for the Future
PeakNet has spent time reimaging and rebranding the company to represent its current services and create the opportunity to develop future product solutions with the Duke Energy assets. As a matter of course, PeakNet will be able to market Duke Energy’s sites to the carriers at higher level.
The JV agreement with Duke Energy opens up a six-state territory that PeakNet will be marketing to the carriers, including macro site collocations on existing monopoles, transmission structures and microwave towers; small cell attachments on streetlights, distribution poles and transmission structures, as well as, turnkey services, land parcels and construction services for build-to-suit monopoles. And PeakNet may even provide similar services to other utilities that have the same needs and concerns.
“PeakNet has the ability, experience and willingness to look at being a managed service for other utilities that struggle with this very thing,” Whitley said.
When Keith Pennachio, executive vice president of SQUAN, envisions the future of telecom infra, he sees a world where the skillsets needed to build smart cities have more to do with wireline than wireless.
“We are viewing wireless through a wireline lens,” he said. “We are building our expertise in the outside plant, in addition to traditional wireless development. We are able, in a seamless way, to bridge the gap between wireless and wireline.”
SQUAN purchased Communications Specialists Inc. (CSI) earlier this year, which brought it a suite of aerial and underground fiber optic services that complements the company’s small cell deployment services. Last year, it purchased Osmose Communications Services, which provides outside plant and inside plant design engineering services.
“We saw in them an opportunity to take advantage of the shift to small cells and how it is trending toward the utility fiber contractors,” Pennachio said. “We wanted to bring that expertise in-house instead of being put in a position that we had to subcontract out the work.”
With the purchase of CSI, SQUAN comes full circle to a degree. It was founded in New Jersey in 2008 to do fiber to the tower work before expanding into macrocell construction and eventually DAS and small cells construction throughout New York, as well as New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and in parts of New England. Three years ago, SQUAN was sold to a private equity firm, RFE Investment Partners, has led to two more acquisitions so far.
Through its purchase of CSI and Osmose, SQUAN now has access to nearly a dozen additional fiber companies as customers, all of which have been contemplating how to capitalize of their existing fiber through wireless services.
“When you think of the assets we purchased, you have to look at the information we glean from our fiber clients,” he said. “We take that intelligence, repackage it and sell it to our wireless clients as a streamlined service offering.”
In addition to the carriers, SQUAN works for municipalities, Internet of Things providers and cable companies.
“We do quite a bit of work with a cable company in the northeast, doing test beds for strand-mounted small cells,” he said. “We have fiber-optic experts who are comfortable working in the telecom right-of-way space. Our first plan of attack is to use the outside plant resources that are already familiar with this type of application. But instead of installing a DSLAM [Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexer] in the right of way, they are deploying small cell radios and antennas.”
Jobs in the Future: Wireless Versus Wireline
As the line has blurred between wireless and wireless, Pennachio notes that friction is occurring as wireline and wireless employees compete for jobs.
“I think the wireline employees have the greatest advantage if they can understand RF wave propagation,” he said. “The line is disappearing, but the wireline will take control because it is outside plant, at the end of the day.”
Pennachio believes it is easier for a wireless company to add fiber optic expertise through acquisition than for a major company to consolidate wireless and wireline divisions. “It is so much easier to bring an outside plant group into our wireless space where we don’t the politics. We see it as a service offering that complements the rest of our business,” he said.
Pennachio expects the closing of the AT&T/Time Warner deal and the Century Link/Level 3 merger will bring a rapid acceleration of the market for services in the next five years.
Over the long term, as smart cities build out, deployment methods are going to favor the expertise of fiber companies, as opposed to the wireless site development companies, according to Pennachio.
“My background is wireless, but the addition of fiber services adds some clarity as to how these networks will develop over time,” he said.
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.
May 4, 2017 —
Using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) technology to inspect and evaluate telecommunications towers involves more than simply selecting an aircraft and beginning to operate. Productive UAS operators analyze individual data requirements for specific companies and apply a proven systems integration approach. UAS include unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), ground-based controllers and a method of communication between them.
Vetting drone contractors takes time and care, but pays off with increased safety in conducting inspections, more data, and better and more timely reporting
In many parts of the United States, telecommunications towers are sited where weather conditions range from hurricane winds to hail storms to tornadoes. Maintenance workers and contractors risk their personal safety and even their lives to document tower conditions, locate defects and repair damage. Many sustain life-altering injuries while inspecting the towers.
Inspection is only the first step in what can be a lengthy process. It may take weeks for some inspectors to write the field reports, identify and purchase the necessary materials and schedule repair appointments. Meanwhile, the tower’s structural integrity hangs in the balance. With UAS technology and data analysis, this time-consuming process can be shortened to a few days.
The Vetting Process
When T-Mobile US requested to make updates to its equipment in space rented on my 263-foot tower that AT&T built in 1967, I wondered whether using a drone could help to answer questions about hanging cables and about parts that had fallen off the tower. I wondered if a drone could verify whether a neighbor had ceased shooting at the tower strobe lights.
So I set about conducting interviews and watching demonstrations of UAS equipment at work. I found significant differences among companies and individuals who use UAS to evaluate towers. One company used a drone to take 200 photographs, only to accidentally erase all but 49 of them. Their process also required the purchase of a specialized computer program for $69 in order to clearly view the ones that were left.
Safe drone operation near telecommunications towers requires drones to keep their distance to avoid colliding with the tower, which could happen if the drone were too close when the wind shifts. A collision also could happen if a drone were too close when the pilot makes an error or if the drone malfunctions. Yet, drones need to be near enough to capture images for satisfactory analysis. Some UAS operators use high-resolution photography to allow drones to take photographs from a safe distance of at least 15 to 30 feet from a tower, yet still provide images that can be magnified sufficiently to reveal details.
For my tower, a cooperative effort between a data analysis company, Panton, and a UAS operator, Aviation Unmanned, produced the best photographs, data archive and inspection reports. Their photographs had such high resolution that I was able to enlarge the image of a 1-inch bolt to nearly full-screen size and count its threads. The photographs allowed me to evaluate a clear fall zone area and any problems within a 263-foot radius of the tower. The drone took the photographs from 15 to 30 feet away from the tower.
It helps when the tower owner can be present during the drone flight, as I was. Being on site allowed me to ask the operator to get more detailed shots of areas where I observed conditions that might lead to future problems. A representative of a tenant with equipment on my tower also came to watch, and he was able to see where lightning had blown the top cap off of one of his antennas. Work conducted by the two companies produced an archive of 249 photographs of my tower containing never before accessible details. The photographs will allow me to make future comparisons as necessary. The photographs document the tower’s compliance with FCC and FAA requirements and document its condition for the insurance company that issued a policy for the tower.
I give high marks to Panton’s tower inspection data collection, analysis and access platform. After capturing images for each inspection, the company saves the images under a specific job structure, along with the inspection report and video, if available. Customers with account permission can download the images.
Users can annotate the images to indicate the damage shown and save the result in the job structure, which can be accessed and modified as needed. Users also can save descriptions with each image. The platform also can store mobile images for later access.
A tower management dashboard provides the relationship among all towers owned by the user and the history of inspection for each tower, property and associated carriers.
The platform builds a communication channel that customers use to interact with the Panton team directly on Pi chat (a social media-like instant message service) or via a mobile app. Real-time communication helps users obtain answers and resolve problems as quickly as possible.
A universal reporting function with a one-time definition of report template and data contents allows users to run real-time reports on demand.
There are also several positives for Aviation Unmanned, the UAS operator. The company hires only experienced UAS pilots and payload operators. Its pilots have experience as military UAS instructor pilots. They have operated complex UAS platforms throughout the world. All of its operators have FAA pilot licenses and certification as instructors from manufacturers of commercially available UAS.
Vetting UAS contractors can be tedious, but the effort is worth it. Commercial drone technology works in real time: The drone flight photographs make it possible to direct the pilots to areas where problems are logged as they are observed. This is impossible when climbers examine towers and problems become apparent only later when their photographs are reviewed.
Of course, safety is the most important difference between manned and unmanned tower examinations. But other factors — timeliness of information gathered, evaluation reports delivered, vast improvement in details collected and the quality of the archived photographs —make UAS technology an up and comer in the wireless business.
Larry Shaefer is president of Wireless Towers and Wireless Properties, which own towers and tower properties in Texas. Panton has its headquarters in Houston, and Aviation Unmanned has its headquarters in Addison, Texas.