The upside of Crown Castle International’s investments in fiber and small cells dwarfs the possible downside, Daniel Schlanger, executive vice president & chief financial officer of Crown Castle International, said in an interview with Dave Barden, managing director, Bank of America Securities yesterday during the BofA Merrill Lynch 2020 Media, Communications & Entertainment Conference.
Schlanger was responding to a question about whether Crown Castle could have invested money in ways that would have given a higher return and if he regretted investing in fiber and small cells.
“It’s clear that the investments that we made over the last five years are not the highest return investments,” Schlanger said. “We could have bought stock in Tesla and made seven times our money, but our business is not to speculate in stocks. When you factor in the probability of an upside, the upside way outweighs the downside.
“Do I think we made a mistake? Absolutely not. We are trying to create a model that worked so well with towers. We have shared infrastructure that lowers our customers’ costs and generates a return over and above our costs of capital for our investors,” he added.
The question was tied to arguments made by Elliott Management, which has a $1 billion interest in Crown Castle, that the company’s stock has underperformed compared with other public towers because of its fiber strategy, which has yielded “disappointing returns despite the $16 billion of investment.”
Crown’s interest in fiber and therefore small cells stretches back to 2014 when it purchased 24/7 Mid-Atlantic Network, which owned 900 route miles of fiber in the Baltimore/Washington corridor. At the time, Crown had more than 6,000 nodes under contract that it was in the process of building, and it needed fiber to build out small cells for Verizon in the Baltimore market. Since then, it has purchased numerous other fiber companies, including Quanta Fiber Networks (Sunesys) in 2015, FPL FiberNet Holdings in 2016 and Wilcon Holdings in 2017. Today, it is the long-term owner of more than 80,000 route miles of fiber.
Crown has been installing small cells for indoor, outdoor and mixed-use areas since 2003, and today it has 70,000 small cells on air or under contract.
Schlanger said it is too soon to judge whether the investment into fiber and small cells will pay off, and he said he is confident that the data needs spurred by 5G technology will bring exponential demand for more small cells. On Crown’s web site, it projects that 800,000 new small cells will be needed by 2026.
“We are not to the point where these investments (under any underwriting scenario) would have generated returns over and above our cost of capital,” he said. “It is not a sufficient time to determine whether they were the right decisions or not. As we look out into the future, we feel very strongly that small cells will be an important part of the network architecture going forward.”
Schlanger said the economics of collocation on small cells are good enough push up the initial anchor tenant yield, which is 6 percent to 7 percent, up to 10 percent to 12 percent.
“The assumption is we are adding a single additional tenant per small cell or an additional two to three nodes per mile of our fiber that we already own,” Schlanger said. “That is a relatively low bar to make a return. The potential is there that we could add significantly more small cells if we see the potential upside of millions of small cells in the United States and we have fiber in the top 30 U.S. cities, which is where the majority of those small cells will go. We could see seven or eight nodes per mile. The upside in that is huge.”