It is as though we are entering a three-dimensional holiday card as we look out the front windshield of a bright-red PistenBully snowcat tracked vehicle stuttering up the mountain through evergreen trees adorned with thick dollops of snow toward a tower farm shrouded in a fog of snowflakes.
There is no emergency today. Just a Legacy Telecommunications employee training to be a new snowcat pilot. CEO Jim Tracy’s tone is light, but his message of safety-first is serious as he puts Jay Peterson through his paces. Teaching him the finer points of controlling the snowy leviathan with a tiny joystick.
But if there were an emergency, this is exactly where you would find them.
The prime power for these remote tower sites in the Cascade Mountain Range comes from generators. If a generator goes out, the clock begins to tick – crews have one battery-life to get to that site for repairs.
“When you have an essential link to a microwave system or even a fiber network goes out, you have a very limited window of opportunity before people start losing data, losing money or lifesaving 911 service,” Tracy said. “Our job is to get to that tower under any type of weather conditions. Snow, rain, slush — as long as it is still safe.”
In order to get there safely, Legacy commands a fleet of vehicles that are up for the job: three PistenBully snowcats and five Polaris utility terrain vehicles (UTV) on quad tracks. The snowcats work best in the heaviest snow, and the UTVs work also well into the spring. Legacy always keeps a UTV to back up the snowcat, or vice versa, in case weather conditions change.
The cost of being prepared is not small, however. A snowcat alone will cost around $250,000, including equipment and a trained operator. Inside the cab, it is safety first with multiple communications options, including a GPS unit, a 406 MHz Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (known as an EPIRB), a satellite phone and a land mobile radio, not to mention a cell phone. But even with these high upfront costs straining return on investment, Tracy views mountain tower services as good for business.
Legacy has service level agreements with customers that require it to be on a tower site that may be on a mountainside, inside a six-hour window. Its fleet of vehicles is positioned in different locations across the Northwest, in order to reach the maximum number of mountaintop tower sites. Though based in Seattle, Legacy reaches mountaintop tower sites to the east as far as South Dakota and to the south as far as Wyoming, southern Oregon and Nevada.
The goal, according to Tracy, is to differentiate Legacy from its competitors in the industry by serving customers’ needs when and where they need to be served.
“Our focus is to create value by never allowing our customers’ towers to go down,” Tracy said. “That allows us to keep our customers happy. We are trying to make sure that they can call us anytime for anything.”
A Path to Diversification
The ability to get technicians to the top of a tower at the top of a mountain in rain, sleet or snow has diversified Legacy’s clients. When you roll up to a mountaintop tower farm, you may see tower owned by FAA for air-to-ground communications. The Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service administers sites and access rather than owning towers. So Legacy has access through and on government property to service sites under their leases. That opens up a number of new customer possibilities. Legacy’s office in Three Forks, Montana, has to access Yellowstone National Park in the winter to reach tower sites when you are more likely to find a bison, elk or moose than a clear road.
“Our ability to reach mountaintops has opened up other avenues for us,” Tracy said. “Legacy has been successful in providing drone service to tower sites in the mountains for the oil and gas community and others in the telecom world, not only for inspections but also for predicting upgrades or to determine whether a tower is safe to climb.”
Legacy Telecommunications, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary this summer, has evolved its fleet over years. If you go back to the year 2000, the fleet included a half-dozen four-wheel-drive, three-quarter-ton Chevy pickups. Ten years later, you would have found a single PistenBully, a pair of UTV quads on wheels and a few pickup trucks fitted with large tool boxes. Today, you will find everything from tractors to excavators, pickup trucks, utility-type service bodies, PistenBullys, excavators, quads on tracks and portable generators.
“Our fleet has changed remarkably over the years, but it is all customer-driven,” Tracy said. “Between the Rockies and the Cascades, we get snow by the yard, not the inch, and our customer may need us when the weather is tough. If you can be their hero during their bad times, they should feel safe with you when the jobs are easier, as well.”
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.