Marc Ganzi, president and chief executive officer of DigitalBridge Group, and Alex Gellman, chief executive officer and co-founder of Vertical Bridge, delivered the keynote address at today’s AGL Virtual Summit. Moderated by Rick Heilbrunn, president and CEO of AGL Media Group, the keynote marked the first time Gellman and Ganzi have spoken together on the same panel, Gellman said.
“Ours is really a simple story,” Ganzi said. “It’s a story that started back in 1994, building a business with Alex, constructing digital PCS sites and building infrastructure. We’re in a really unique space today. We’re the only global-scale digital infrastructure firm that invests across all the key five verticals, and on a global basis: cell towers, networks, small cells and edge infrastructure. Today, we have about $40 billion in assets under management and 23 companies on a global basis. And we have over 100 investment professionals who wake up every day and only think about investing in this very specific ecosystem.”
Ganzi talked about the traditional way of investing in digital infrastructure, which he called picking a swim lane and a silo approach, where firms would specialize in cell towers, small cells or data centers.
“That’s the way networks were built in the 1990s and early 2000s — 2G, 3G and even 4G,” Ganzi said. “What we’re going through today is really an unprecedented window of opportunity — which is more than just mobility. Certainly, 5G is feeling the cap of expansion, but I would offer that cloud, particularly as it impacts access network cores, C-RAN and O-RAN, artificial intelligence, internet of things — all of these things are starting to converge.
“Secular tailwinds are driving us toward what I would call next-generation networks and, most importantly, toward next-generation network architecture — which is really about reliability, low maintenance and bringing technology and applications closer and closer to the end users,” Ganzi said. “This is the transition that this sector is going to go though over the next decade.”
Gellman said that he agreed.
“Marc has been talking about convergence for a number of years,” Gellman said. “It really has each year become clearer that convergence is coming into fruition. We look to our customers. We’re not looking at our competitors, we’re looking at our customers and seeing what kind of conversations they want to have, and what they’re thinking. And one thing that’s happening — certainly in the United States, but really worldwide — is wireless carriers are rethinking their networks top to bottom. Four years ago, we were talking about virtualizing the core, but now they’re really talking about is where the core should be, which drives the edge conversation.”
Gellman said that Vertical Bridge customers were looking at open RAN, shared RAN and their networks top to bottom in a new way.
“What’s exciting for us is we’re a tower company — so that’s pretty straightforward — but we have the opportunity, in the DigitalBridge family, as our customers demand a converged solution, to tailor the converged solution with the other partners in the family to that customer’s needs. Right now, what we’re seeing is that each customer in the United States has a different angle on it and is seeking different levels to coordinate convergence between our companies.”
During his presentation, Ganzi emphasized the need for connectivity in digital infrastructure. Presenting a PowerPoint slide that read, “DigitalBridge is levered to the powerful thematics driving significant investments in mobile and internet connectivity on global basis,” Ganzi said, “It’s simple: We need more connectivity, we need it better and faster.”
Ganzi said that there’s a persistent amount of investment, which sets up well for DigitalBridge’s sector — and he said that everyone who participates in the wireless infrastructure sector will be really busy for the next decade.
“So, what fuels that?” he asked. “Obviously, mobile data traffic — five times growth over the next five years. “That will come in traditional 2G, 3G and 4G, but 5G is the biggest growth vertical. And then, fixed wireless. Enterprise 5G networks and indoor networks. Behind that is more than just wireless connectivity. It’s computers — and the pipes that ultimately fuel that.”
When AGL’s Heilbrunn asked him about the difficulties posed by the pandemic, such as supply chain issues and skilled-worker shortages, Ganzi said he would classify the challenges into three categories.
“The first is supply chain,” he said. “It’s the strangest stuff that will hold you up today. It won’t be fiber from Corning. It won’t be a monopole form Sabre, but it will be something as silly as a grounding system. It will be something as silly an AC vent — a special type of venting system for a hyperscale datacenter. And it’s sometimes the smallest components that are stuck in a shipping container. Supply chain congestion is specialized components. It’s hurting our ability to execute.”
Ganzi said the second category is just getting people back to work.
“That’s been one of the biggest challenges we’ve had,” he said. “Getting folks motivated to return to work, return to the mission.”
Ganzi said the third category is permitting, which he said is DigitalBridge’s biggest challenge.
“Municipalities have been slow to get back to full steam,” he said. “Certainly, online permitting is great, but when you’re doing specialized things, like building a 100-megawatt datacenter, trying to lay down 100 nodes in Austin, Texas — it’s challenging. I think permitting has always been the challenge — but certainly the pandemic has made it more pronounced and more difficult.”
Gellman said that he agreed.
“We’re insulated as a macro tower builder in that we can get what we need to deploy towers, but our customers can’t get what they need to install them,” Gellman said. “At some point. that’s going to back up. We haven’t seen it yet, but I am concerned and acutely aware of the potential. Interestingly, it’s not Nokia and Ericsson that are having the trouble, it’s all the other builders of materials that go into the site, where you start to run into these shortages”
Gellman raised an alarm on a regulatory issue: the FAA’s new rules, which regulate C-Band installation because of potential navigation interference.
“We’re getting notices from the FAA on any site where our customers are installing C-Band, asking a list of detailed questions about power output and antennas.”
Other AGL Summit sessions included “A Different View from the Top, in which a panel of wireless infrastructure women executives discussed the news, industry predictions and technologies.
In another session, “Venturing Out: Post-pandemic Investment,” panelists examined the types of wireless infrastructure opportunities that attract investors, including new business, mergers and acquisitions, and expanding industry subgroups.
A fourth AGL Virtual Summit session was “Out of Stock: Mitigating Global Supply Chain Issues.” The pandemic set off a chain of events that has industries scrambling to meet demand for their customers. In the supply chain session, panelists examined the areas of concern for the digital infrastructure industry and discussed how to navigate this unprecedented time of shortage.
Within several days, a video recording of the AGL Virtual Summit will become available for viewing on the AGL Media Group website at https://aglmediagroup.com/localsummits/.
Mike Harrington is a contributing editor.
Marc Ganzi, president and chief executive officer of DigitalBridge Group, and Alex Gellman, chief executive officer and co-founder of Vertical Bridge, are slated to deliver the half-hour keynote address at the AGL Virtual Summit on Nov. 10 at 12 p.m. Eastern time. The Summit will run live from 12 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Eastern time.
The AGL Virtual Summit is free to attend. Click here to register.
– “A Different View from the Top.” In this session, a panel of wireless infrastructure women executives will discuss the news, industry predictions and technologies.
– “Venturing Out: Post-pandemic Investment.” This session will examine the types of wireless infrastructure opportunities that attract investors, including new business, mergers and acquisitions, and expanding industry subgroups.
– “Out of Stock: Mitigating Global Supply Chain Issues.” The pandemic set off a chain of events that has industries scrambling to meet demand for their customers. In this session, panelists will examine the areas of concern for the digital infrastructure industry and discuss how to navigate this unprecedented time of shortage.
The book Fauxliage by Annette LeMay Burke contains 60 color photographs of disguised cell phone towers of the American West. Burke, a photographic artist, captured images of often-whimsical tower disguises during six years of travel. The photographs also are available in 17×22 and 30×44 prints, with individual commissions for larger sizes.
“I live in Silicon Valley,” Burke said, in an interview with AGL Magazine. “I used to work in tech, so I’m used to having a lot of technology around me. I first noticed these disguised trees in the early 2000s. Even in Silicon Valley, they stood out as a little odd. They amused me. Eventually, I started a photo project.”
Writing in her book, Burke said that the more she photographed the towers, the more disconcerted she felt about technology clandestinely modifying the environment.
“Would our children soon accept these towers as normal?” she asked. “I began to explore how this manufactured nature had imposed a contrived aesthetic in our neighborhoods. My photographs expose the towers’ idiosyncratic disguises, highlight the variety of forms and show how ubiquitous they are in our daily lives.” Because the towers are mostly fake trees, Burke called the photo series Fauxliage.
Some of Burke’s search for towers to photograph simply involved a lot of driving around.
“It’s much easier when you’re the passenger, just to look around,” she said. “Many times, I would take scouting shots with my cell phone just to get the GPS and then go back later. I would ask people who live in the area where good ones are. Also, the internet is just a great research tool.”
Burke said she has a degree in geology, and she is interested in the natural world and how people interact with it.
“I’m used to looking at the landscape,” she said. “I’m interested in artifacts that we leave behind. This could be something that technology has left behind, these cell towers.”
Despite the quirky disguises that can be entertaining to look at, Burke wrote in her book, the towers present privacy and environmental concerns. “The often-farcical pole disguises belie the equipment’s covert ability to collect all the personal data transmitted from our cell phones,” the book reads. “Our social media interactions, advertising clicks, location tracking pings, audio recordings by the always-listening Siri and Alexis, are all commoditized, sold and stored by Big Tech and the government. Surveillance capitalism, especially perfecting the algorithms that can predict our behavior to advertisers, is big business in the 21st century.”
Commenting about the cell towers disguised as saguaro cacti, Burke said, “They are my favorite. The ones I photographed are in the Phoenix area. They are very well disguised, I think, because they can be shorter. It helps them to fit in a little better. The designers go to great detail. The little cactus spines are all airbrushed individually. They have re-created the little birds’ nest burrows in there. They are really great.
Burke maintains a website at www.atelierlemay.com, where it is possible to obtain signed copies of the book. Daylight Books publishes Fauxliage by Annette LeMay Burke; visit www. daylightbooks.org/products/fauxliage.
Don Bishop is executive editor and associate publisher of AGL Magazine.
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-OR), House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, inquired about the federal government’s research into the potential health effects of RF radiation and the FCC’s guidelines for safe human RF exposure levels, in light of 5G rollout, in a letter last week to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and the Food and Drug Administration’s acting commissioner, Norman Sharpless.
“As you know, the impending rollout of 5G technology will require the installation of hundreds of thousands of small cell sites in neighborhoods and communities around the country and these installations will emit higher-frequency radio waves than previous generations of cellular technology,” DeFazio wrote. “This means Americans will be exposed to more non-ionizing RF radiation than ever before.”
The FCC’s current RF-safety guidelines were set in 1996, DeFazio noted, and in 2012 the Government Accountability Office recommended that it should “formally reassess and, if appropriate, change its current RF energy exposure limits.” The commission has taken no action in this area.
Meanwhile, DeFazio notes the growing anxiety about RF among the public in general and in his district in particular. “States and municipalities across the country are hearing from citizens who are concerned about this technology being installed in their communities,” he wrote.
Alex Gellman, CEO and co-founder of Vertical Bridge, told AGL eDigest that there is no science-backed evidence behind the link between cell towers and health issues. The objections voiced at zoning meetings are based on emotion and misleading information downloaded from the internet, he said.
“As an industry, we should use science to counter that emotion,” Gellman said. “The facts are on our side, but that doesn’t work unless we use them. We need to use data to make our case about the safety of cell towers. The exposure from a cell tower is measured in the power output of lightbulbs. With the rising tide of conversation on this subject, we should pull out the facts.”
Allan Tantillo, vice president of new technologies at Vertical Bridge, said the deployment of large numbers of small cells has stirred up emotions surrounding the health and safety of cell towers. “We are rolling out a new technology where people are hearing about hundreds of thousands of new cell sites,” he said. “People have a hard time conceptualizing and understanding the deployment of 100,000 small cells that are 1,000 feet from them. They just hear numbers and think ‘I was kind of worried about cell towers but now they are really going flood us with even more radio waves. There’s got to be a problem.’”
The science and physics involved haven’t changed, according to Tantillo. “The small cell sites produce lower power output that previous cell tower buildouts,” he said. “The power output of a small cell on a light pole is relatively the same as what you get from many devices that you have in your home already.”
Tantillo said the wireless infrastructure industry and cellular carriers need to join together to address the health concerns. He said that when he was with T-Mobile, he was the driver behind the development of a website, www.howmobileworks.com, which educated municipalities on a number of issues relative to cell tower development. It offers conclusions based on facts about health concerns from a number of sources. Here are a few:
Gellman said individual companies should not have to go it alone in the educational process. Both the cellular companies and the infrastructure companies should align on a set of information and share that information. “The science is on our side; we just need to be good at educating,” he said.
Tantillo stressed that the industry needs to be proactive with its message and take the right tone that is conscious of people’s emotions. “We need to be prepared to provide the right set of facts to those that are making the decisions to balance out the emotional appeals,” he said. “The law doesn’t allow city officials to take health and safety into account in tower zoning hearings, but you can’t legislate emotion.”
DeFazio, however, is looking for more than just general references to scientific literature, such as the ones above. He is asking the FCC for the specific health-related studies, what gaps remain in our knowledge of the possible health effects of 5G, and the steps it has taken to educate the public about the RF radiation and safety relative to 5G technology. He seems to believe that 5G technology somehow changes the health effects of RF radiation.
“It is clear that the federal government has not been transparent enough about the current status of 5G RF radiation research and its guidelines on RF exposure limits,” he wrote. “The FCC’s and FDA’s responses to congressional inquiries on this issue have been less than satisfactory, merely reiterating general statements that 5G technology is safe without citing specific research or studies.”
Far above any band used for radio communications, alpha, beta, neutron and gamma rays and x-rays are known as ionizing radiation, which means they can damage living tissue, causing radiation burns and cancer. It is possible that the public confuses this type of radiation with radio waves from the AM band up to the millimeter-wave band, which are non-ionizing. They can only hurt you by heating up the tissue of your body. It should be noted that the FCC’s regulations set the limits to public RF exposure at 50 times below any level that is deemed to be harmful.
AGL Media Group’s J. Sharpe Smith toured the headquarters of Vertical Bridge, in Boca Raton, Florida and discussed the important issues facing the wireless infrastructure industry with Alex Gellman, CEO and co-founder, and Bernard Borghei, senior VP, operations and co-founder.
What new opportunities do you envision for wireless infrastructure?
Gellman: Verizon and AT&T are very rapidly moving to use 5G to deploy low-latency, high-definition personalized video Over The Top (OTT). That’s new. They weren’t talking about that last year. That’s a big shift of video to wireless. They did their bench testing and realized that 5G can provide the speed and low-latency to deliver video over a skinny bundle into homes without a truck roll. It’s so much cheaper and so much better for them as a business model.
So there will be pre-5G roll out of fixed point-to-multipoint delivery of Internet and Video, which will pick up at the end of this year, but will happen mostly in 2018-2019. It will be a bridge to the traditional 5G mobility model, which is set for 2020.
Borghei: We are excited to see what AT&T does with OTT, setting the platform for 5G delivery of video content. We view OTT as an opportunity for our broadcast towers to provide space for anyone that wants to provide fixed wireless services. Verizon should continue getting its arms around its content strategy concerning its acquisition of Aol and Yahoo.
What other events do you expect to affect the wireless infrastructure industry in 2017?
Borghei: It is going to be a transformational year from the megamerger standpoint. The AT&T/Time Warner deal will go through with the new administration. There will be attempts to acquire T-Mobile, which, if successful, would be huge for the industry. Not necessarily negative. We are not nervous about it. As Alex says, a marketplace with four carriers and only two spending money is not as good as a market with three healthy carriers spending money.
Overall, 2017 should be a gradual improvement in leasing over 2016, which saw stronger growth over the second half. Additionally, there are deadlines coming up for DISH to do something with its spectrum.
Gellman: The long term wireless infrastructure demand outlook is good. Even though organic growth has been muted, tower stocks held up because 5G is coming. You are going to need to amend the existing sites, roll out new frequencies and densify the network. All of that is good for towers.
What kind of impact do small cells have on your bottom line?
Gellman: In the area of densification, the carrier spend, which has been pretty muted in the last few years, is coming. We are hitting our projections coming out of the gate but they are pretty modest projections. Over time you will see it grow. So far, small cell buying has been geographically driven based on traffic and traffic projections. The carriers are looking for bulk answers: a single company to give them, for example, 300 small cells in Chicago. That does not lend itself to the sites that we have. As the carriers get more specific on the location of their hotspots and they get comfortable with billboards, they will call us if they have a traffic problem in a certain intersection.
Gellman: Shockingly, small cell site deployment is still driven by RF propagation analysis. There is going to be a shift by the carriers where they do their capital deployment based on traffic, more than RF. It is about the location of the high school. What do your sites look like when school lets out? That’s the peak. I guarantee you they need small cells all around those high schools. Where is the Instagram and Facebook traffic? That’s where the carriers are moving. That’s where our billboards come in. We have a pretty good pipeline, but it should increase by an order of magnitude in the next 12 to 18 months.
How will network virtualization affect Vertical Bridge?
Gellman: Where Digital Bridge and Vertical Bridge are focused is on the physical layer of the network. When people talk about network virtualization, that is really the software and the computerization of the network, but there still needs to be a physical layer to get to the cloud. You need antennas, towers, radios, fiber and data centers. That is what Vertical Bridge focuses on, the physical layer of the network. When AT&T talks about virtualization, I think it is terrific. The more efficient the carriers are, the healthier they are, the better.
Outside of your towers, you now have 40,000 assets that you market for wireless facilities, including rooftops and billboards. What need does this fill for your customers?
Borghei : The densification of the heterogeneous networks will drive the need for different types of assets: urban, suburban and rural. When you have indoor solutions handing off to small cells that hand off to macrocells, that’s where having different types of assets complementing our macrocell network is always going to be key for us. Densification is going to take place on all of these different morphologies. The various types of assets we have accumulated in buildings, rooftops, utility attachments and macrocells –– all are part of a turnkey real estate solution.
Borghei: I take it personally when people call us a tower company. We are no longer a tower company. We are a real estate solution provider. We have all these different types of assets to meet the demands of today’s advanced technology leading into 5G and beyond.
Gellman: We bought a lot of suburban towers with a lot of real estate. If C-RAN is to be located at specific sites, we look at marketing the land under our sites for a C-RAN hub.