September 27, 2016 —
EDITORS’ NOTE — This is the third of three articles revealing the different approaches to small cells of the major tower companies. Crown Castle International, InSite Wireless Group and Digital Bridge Holdings share an appetite for small cells.
For Crown Castle, small cells represent assets placed on a collocatable asset, which is the fiber-optic network that delivers traffic from a mobile wireless network at a local point. “Whether that’s a distributed antenna system (DAS) node, a small cell, a femtocell or a picocell doesn’t necessarily matter to us, as long as there’s a fiber on which we can collocate,” said Dan Schlager, senior vice president of corporate finance at Crown Castle.
Schlager said Crown Castle wants to make the fiber-optic network profitable. To do so, the company seeks to participate in the densification of the radio-frequency (RF) spectrum the mobile networks deploy and, in doing so, become a partner to its wireless carrier customers. “We firmly believe that fiber is the asset that we’re going to collocate on, and what we really try to push on,” he said.
In a view expressed by Jay A. Brown, Crown Castle’s president and CEO, because small cells are deployed closer to the end user and in a denser array, such as on traffic lights or telephone poles, they represent the natural progression of network densification required to provide continuous consistent high-capacity and low-latency connectivity. With small cells, the company’s initial investment relates primarily to the build out of the fiber-optic cable network. “We believe our fiber footprint of 17,000 miles in top mature markets combined with the capabilities that we have acquired and developed over time give us time to market and economic advantages that should allow us to capture a significant share of this large opportunity,” Brown said.
For 2016, Crown Castle is expecting $170 million in organic revenue growth, with $115 million from towers and $55 million from small cells. Brown said the company sees its investment in small cells as representing an opportunity to grow the dividend it pays shareholders.
“Looking beyond 2016, we believe we are in a multiple-year cycle of network upgrades and enhancements, as carriers focused on meeting significantly increasing demand for wireless connectivity, which we believe will benefit both our tower and small cell businesses,” Brown said.
InSite Wireless started in the DAS business 16 years ago. The company built a system in the Moscone Center in San Francisco that has since undergone nearly six generations of upgrades for densification. InSite Wireless focuses on indoor DAS, always providing fiber access to the sites.
“The leasing on DAS is phenomenal,” said Lance Cawley, CFO of InSite Wireless. He said the company built a DAS that covers the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) subway in Boston that serves AT&T Mobility, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile USA and Sprint. In addition, Comcast provides Wi-Fi service. InSite Wireless has started some underground wireless service for Verizon in the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro).
“DAS is a wonderful, yet difficult, business,” Cawley said. “Unlike towers, which are just a simple real estate leasing business involving many forms and a documented information flow handled by run of the mill staff, in DAS, it requires somebody at all levels of legal, engineering, RF and finance. These are $20 million, $30 million and $40 million build outs that take many years to complete. It involves a lobbyist and attorneys. It’s complicated, but we have phenomenal results in our DAS business. I think of the small cell business as an extension of the DAS business. A small cell has a base transceiver station (BTS) built in, whereas DAS has a centralized BTS pack.”
Cawley said InSite Wireless is indifferent to which solution it provides. “We provide whatever is cost-effective for the carrier to meet its capacity demands,” he said. “We love the macro tower business. It’s the majority of our business. We believe you should be in all these lines of business to meet the carriers’ growth and capacity requirements.”
At Digital Bridge Holdings, CEO Marc Ganzi said mature small cell networks experience lease amendment activity much like the tower business does. And business is good. “In the small cell business, we’re drinking through a fire hose,” Ganzi said. “We have 2,000 nodes in construction. We’ve got a leasing backlog that’s worth close to $60 million in annual recurring rent. There’s more than we know what to do with. It’s that size of an opportunity. That’s good, because as some of the macro tower business has slowed, we’ve seen the small cell business accelerate dramatically.”
Dan Schlager, Lance Cawley and Marc Ganzi spoke at the Wireless Investors Conference, part of the Wireless Infrastructure Show, in May. The next Wireless Infrastructure Show is scheduled for May 22–25, 2017, in Orlando, Florida. Jay A. Brown spoke during an earnings call in July.