Dish Network and Vertical Bridge REIT have reached a long-term agreement granting Dish access to Vertical Bridge’s portfolio of towers, rooftops, utility transmission structures, billboards, convenience stores and other sites used for wireless infrastructure deployment. Vertical Bridge has a portfolio of more than 300,000 sites in 50 states and Puerto Rico.
“Building a national 5G network requires an extensive presence across urban, suburban and rural areas, and Vertical Bridge’s portfolio offers Dish the array of coverage that we need,” said Dave Mayo, Dish executive vice president of network development. “As we continue to deploy Dish’s 5G network, Vertical Bridge’s assets, experience and commitment make them an invaluable partner.”
Alex Gellman, CEO and cofounder of Vertical Bridge, said that the tower company is committed to assisting Dish in its effort to build “a truly unique” 5G network. Just a couple days after the signing of the lease agreement, Dish had already begun signing lease agreements.
“It’s nice to get this important step behind us, so that we can really get to work on identifying sites, vetting them, leasing them and helping them get them built,” Gellman said.
In 2020, Dish became a nationwide U.S. wireless carrier through the acquisition of Boost Mobile. The company is building a cloud-native, Open RAN-based 5G broadband network. Now it is under pressure to build out a 5G network before FCC deadlines that require it to use its spectrum.
It is the second tower leasing agreement that Dish has signed. Crown Castle announced a long-term agreement with Dish last November through which the tower company will lease Dish space on up to 20,000 cell towers. Gellman said he believed Dish was drawn by the fact that Vertical Bridge is the largest private tower company and growing quickly, as well as the relationships developed over the years.
Vertical Bridge added more the 1,000 owned towers to its portfolio in 2020, including those from its acquisition of towers from Cumulus Media, its merger with Eco-Site and with newly built towers.
“Dave Mayo and I have known each other for a long time, since back when he was with T-Mobile and I was with Global Tower Partners. And a lot of his staff are known to us at Vertical Bridge,” Gellman said. “We are growing really fast. We are private, so we can be pretty flexible on some things that help them get going.”
One point of flexibility is amendments. With Vertical Bridge, the carrier can install whatever equipment it likes on a RAD center within certain wind loading criteria, as opposed to paying for each amendment to the tower.
“Bucket loading, to me, makes more sense, because it’s a real estate structure. It’s more of a square-footage play,” Gellman said. “We’re a real estate company. Our job is to deploy capital, buying and building assets, and then renting them to customers who are healthy and are happy being there. So, I don’t mind at all, a structure that allows tenants to operate efficiently in the space. It’s easy for them, and that’s good for me.”
Gellman admitted that Dish has a “gargantuan” task when it comes to building out a nationwide 5G network from scratch. He said that Vertical Bridge’s philosophy of being “fast, flexible and friendly” will help the carrier move quickly.
“We respond very, very quickly and are cognizant of how important timeliness is for them, which is important for any of our customers but especially for Dish,” Gellman said. We must be flexible with what they need so that we can help them get things done, and then the friendly part is, really, to keep an open line of communication so that we can deal with whatever may come along.”
After their company was acquired by Vertical Bridge, Eco-Site’s co-founders Dale Carey, Bob Glosson and Rich Stern joined the tower company’s executive team. Carey serves as executive vice president of strategy and convergence. Glosson is senior vice president of real estate solutions, and Stern is senior vice president of real estate.
“The other thing that’s really beneficial for us is, with the recently completed merger with Eco-Site, we added a lot of talent to our team,” Gellman said. “So we’re in a good position to really bear-hug the Dish opportunity and really apply a lot of resources to it.”
Gellman doesn’t believe the Dish agreement will result in a lot of growth for his company in 2021. “This year they’re going to be identifying and doing a lot of work on leasing sites,” he said. “I don’t think their rent will commence for until next year. So I think it’s going to be a build over time in terms of the impact on our income statement.”
Mid-year 2022 is Dish’s deadline to cover 20 percent of the population. A year later, mid-year 2013, that coverage requirement jumps to 70 percent, but Dish can get an extension if it reaches 50 percent population coverage.
Bernard Borghei, executive VP of operations and co-founder of Vertical Bridge, spoke with eDigest on the key issues and trends facing the tower industry as we end 2019 and set off on the new year.
How did Vertical Bridge perform in 2019?
Despite the pause in activity from some of the carriers, we still had a very good year. The business grew at a very attractive rate, from a leasing standpoint.
We had a tremendous year when it came to building new towers. We set another record in terms of new towers built. It was in the hundreds. Some were capacity fill-ins in suburban areas. A majority of the sites were in what I call new frontiers, areas where their coverage was being expanded.
We will carry that momentum from the fourth quarter 2019 into the first quarter of this year. Our fourth quarter was pretty active and ended up pretty strong, because we had a lots of projects that had already begun earlier in the year.
The effects of a pause and pull back are usually not felt until the following months.
What is your take on the Sprint/T-Mobile merger?
Final arguments are scheduled for Jan. 15 and the judge will take three to four weeks to render a decision. It is hard to say. We have spoken to people who attended the court case and they all walked away with different reads.
If it goes through, we are very positive about the merger. We believe it will make the industry more competitive. You will see some integration activities between TMO and Sprint to begin with, but then the focus will turn to building out the new TMO network based on their commitments made as part of the merger. One thing is for sure, if it goes through, you will see a stronger T-Mobile come out and push hard to meet all the promises that it has made to the FCC and the DoJ.
If the merger doesn’t go through, some say the pressure will be off AT&T and Verizon. I don’t know if they can relax. We saw T-Mobile add 7 million new subscribers in the fourth quarter, despite the pending merger.
It would break my heart if the Sprint/T-Mobile merger did not go through, because they have made such strong commitments to expand rural coverage, which I really think is needed for all of our citizens in those areas to gain access to broadband services. All carriers have plenty to do to expand their footprints in rural areas.
One thing is for certain. The fate of this merger should not have taken this long to be decided. No industry can flourish in an environment of uncertainty and this merger has brought an extended cloud of uncertainty that was not necessary. I just hope that we get finality in this case as quickly as possible so we can move forward, one way or another.
In 2020, the FCC’s attention will shift to mid-band spectrum. How will that impact towers?
I think the C Band auction will be very critical for the carriers, knowing how important it will be for 5G networks, and the bidding may be very hotly contested. Depending on how much money the carriers will need to bid in order to get the spectrum in the markets that they need, that may have an impact on their network expenditures in 2020. After the awarding of spectrum to the carriers, historically there is a lag time of nine to 12 months before the new spectrum is deployed in the marketplace.
The C Band is the last attractive band for macro-tower buildings in the foreseeable future. The CBRS auction is going to be important, too, but with all the coordination with the Naval radar stations and the division between the general-access and the priority-access licenses, it will not be as straight forward for the carriers to use it. But the C Band frequencies are perfect spectrum where they sit. Unless we start taking away other parts of spectrum from the military or other sectors, C Band may be the last piece of attractive spectrum made available to carriers for a long while, which can be used on macrotowers.
Will we see any impact on macrotowers from the millimeter wave auctions?
There is a lot of technical debate about how effective millimeter wave frequencies will be in a macrotowers environment or whether they should be considered only for small cells.
What deployment trends from 2019 will carry over to this year?
T-Mobile has been aggressive about its 600 MHz buildout. There is a decent level of activity that we continue to see from T-Mobile. AT&T has continued to deploy FirstNet sites and upgrades to existing sites. They continue to add capacity in various markets. There is a steady level of investment from Verizon. They never get too hot or too cold.
Are you optimistic about future growth of towers in a 5G world?
If 5G is going to consist of broadband, ultra-low latency networks, with the speed the 5G standard is requiring, a lot more sites are needed to accommodate the promise of 5G. I think the U.S. tower sector can easily bank on 30,000 to 40,000 more towers in the next five to 10 years. I see plenty of growth opportunities for new sites. Our sector will remain extremely attractive.
As seen from the vantage point of an executive with a large tower company, the best opportunities for small companies to develop towers lie in geographic areas where they have expertise and an economic advantage that larger companies cannot match. According to Allan Tantillo, vice president of new technologies at Vertical Bridge, there is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to build towers in rural areas, on tribal land and on federal land where they can develop cooperative relationships with local authorities and populations in a way that some larger companies cannot.
Speaking on Jan. 24 at the AGL Local Summit in Newport Beach, California, Tantillo said that Vertical Bridge has an aggressive build-to-suit tower program, and that Vertical Bridge works with smaller tower companies to develop towers and then later purchase their portfolios.
“There is still a tremendous opportunity to build towers,” Tantillo said. “It is the most efficient way to provide broadband coverage across a geographic footprint. Towers will be needed in suburban areas and in rural areas. Small tower developers play a crucial role, because they have expertise in specific jurisdictions. They have an opportunity to build towers through relationships that they’ve developed and through knowledge they have that larger tower companies cannot obtain, at least not without a lot of expense.”
Asked whether Vertical Bridge helps to fund small tower companies, Tantillo said: “Vertical Bridge is a very creative tower company, and we look at all opportunities to develop their portfolios and support the community.”
Vertical Bridge specializes in wireless base station equipment collocation services, including renting space for antennas on towers, and constructing build-to-suit towers. A statement on the company’s website says that Vertical Bridge is the United States’ largest private owner and manager of wireless communication infrastructure.
The tower business will be affected by several new technologies, Tantillo said. He mentioned 5G wireless communications, millimeter-wave technology and massive multiple-input multiple output (MIMO) communications. He said T-Mobile US has committed to roll out 5G on its 600-MHz spectrum across every inch of the country. As companies like T-Mobile continue to deploy along that front, there will be a great opportunity for the tower industry,” Tantillo said.
There is a lot of talk about how technologies deployed on Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) frequencies will influence the in-building wireless world, Tantillo said, along with using CBRS outdoors to augment mobile network coverage in rural areas.
An evolution in television involving the roll-out of a new broadcasting standard, ATSC 3.0, uses advanced transmission and coding techniques for video and audio to deliver new services to viewers. Tantillo said it will have an effect on the tower business, but to what extent is not clear. He said Vertical Bridge owns the largest portfolio of broadcast towers, and that American Tower has a large broadcast tower portfolio, too.
The question of who will pay for the millions of in-building wireless systems needed to provide the density of wireless access points that mobile network operators will need in the coming years remains to be answered, Tantillo said. He said that because 80 percent of a wireless carrier’s network traffic originates and terminates indoors, there will have to be some kind of shift in financing and ownership.
Uploading and downloading video accounts for much of the increase in network traffic. Tantillo said that when the networks begin to carry 4K video, augmented reality and virtual reality content, a revolution has to happen. “In the in-building wireless world, a large community says the landlords are going to pay for it — and they are,” he said. “Another community says there is no way the landlords are going to pay for it, because the ownership of the buildings turns over, and they don’t see any value to it. The solution will require a tussle and the outcome is unclear.”
In Tantillo’s view, the three or four major wireless carriers do not have enough money and will not have enough money to pay for all of the in-building wireless systems. He said that is where third parties such as Vertical Bridge and other towers owners come in.
“Where we have capital and opportunities, it’s our job to figure out what the solutions are,” Tantillo said. “There will be a tremendous amount of experimentation over the next two, three or four years until we start seeing how that fleshes out.”
On the Edge
With in-building wireless, Tantillo said he sees similarities with what is happening with data centers, edge computing and how content has to move to the edge of the network to make 5G wireless communications possible.
“We understand that network latency has to be reduced, but we do not know what the data centers will look like,” Tantillo said. “I have seen proposals from data centers at the edge designed to put 5,000 square feet of equipment at a cell site or another location, and that will be the data center on the edge. I have seen other proposals that say all that is necessary for edge computing is a rack that fits into a standard Ericsson or Nokia cabinet.”
Tantillo questioned whether many typical urban or suburban cell sites have 5,000 square feet, let alone that the space already is leased by the tower company, and whether there may be another 5,000 square feet adjacent an existing cell site or in close proximity to it. “How many edge computing facilities will be necessary?” he wondered.
Edge computing will be highly transactional, Tantillo said. By way of example, he said that the edge may house the top five Netflix movies and TV shows, and everything else has the same demand. “It is still too early to tell what the landscape is going to look like,” he said. “But it is an exciting time to be involved and to help to craft that landscape.”
Despite the 5G talk, investment in LTE will see plenty of runway in 2019, which is leading to more new tower builds, tower executives say. T-Mobile is building coverage sites for its low-band 600 MHz and 700 MHz spectrum, and AT&T is contemplating a network improvement project as well as its FirstNet-related project. Both of which involve ample new sites, Alex Gellman, CEO, Vertical Bridge, told AGL eDigest.
“We are in a renaissance period for good old macrotowers in the next few years ahead of 5G,” Gellman said. “The reason I feel that way is we are seeing a lot of rings for new towers. The economics and speed of collocations is hard to beat, but there will be new builds as well.
Ron Bizick, CEO, Tarpon Towers, described the new-build business as “vibrant.” It is bringing good times to the independent tower companies.
“There are a lot more towers being built in the rural areas to fill out the white spaces, particularly for AT&T’s FirstNet,” he said. “We are seeing the other carriers build out their coverage, as well. We have targeted some rural areas where we think a second tenant is possible, but only a second tenant.”
With that said, carrier capital expenditures are a quarter-by quarter-question mark. In the first quarter of 2019, tower owners will be looking closely at the capex budgets of AT&T and Verizon after the Big Two pulled back on their spend toward the end of 2018. AT&T’s reduced capex came after the Time Warner deal closed and Verizon shaved $1 billion off its guidance after announcing 44,000 in layoffs last year. Additionally, Verizon had a $4.6B write down of Oath (Yahoo and AOL).
“They pushed capex out at the end of 2018. Was that a trend or a one-time occurrence?” Gellman said. “The layoffs and the write down may be a signal a greater focus on the network in the future.”
Last year’s big story, the Sprint/T-Mobile merger, is carrying over to this year. It was bad news for some tower companies, which saw Sprint business go away after the deal was announced. Gellman believes the quiet surrounding the deal is a portent for its blessing from the Department of Justice. In the long run, he believes the merger will be positive for the industry.
“Sprint has not spent on its network in a meaningful way for a number of years, while T-Mobile has been very aggressive,” he said. “A stronger, larger T-Mobile will be excellent for our industry. T-Mobile is solely focus on its network, while AT&T and Verizon have other places to put their capital and have sometimes invested elsewhere than in the network. If T-Mobile is the same size as AT&T, it will be more difficult for it to do that.”
Jennifer Fritzsche, senior analyst, Wells Fargo, believes the Sprint/T-Mobile merger will go through in the first half of 2019. “Our regulatory checks suggest that the DoJ/FCC approval process has been relatively drama-free thus far,” Fritzsche wrote in an Equity Research note. “We do, however, believe that T-Mobile will have to divest assets – most likely spectrum – to receive approval. The New T-Mobile plans to create a more scaled, viable competitor to AT&T and Verizon, and help turbocharge the carriers’ push to 5G.”
Towers Still a Wall Street Darling
Fritzsche has written that the towers will be remain a compelling investment for shareholders 2019, despite the possible Sprint/T-Mobile merger. Tower stocks beat the S&P index in 2018 (+4.9 percent vs. S&P -6.2 percent), and in 2017 (+40.4 percent vs. S&P +19.4 percent).
“Even with these recent moves, we believe towers will remain very topical in 2019,” Fritzsche wrote. “In our view, there exists a number of tangible catalysts (i.e., FirstNet, T-Mobile’s 600 MHz deployment, 5G densification efforts, edge computing, etc.), which should more than offset expected choppiness in international markets (particularly India) and impact from carrier M&A (namely Sprint and T-Mobile) in the short term.”
Carrier leasing activity, which has grown year over year in recent quarters, is expected to continue to increase in the coming 12 months, according to Fritzsche.
“There is much ‘naked spectrum’ that has yet to be deployed (600 MHz, FirstNet 700 MHz, AWS-3, WCS, 2.5 GHz, mmWave, etc.) – where towers will clearly play a role,” she wrote. “Most deployments are part of multi-year strategies designed by the carriers and complement what they plan to build for densification needs ahead of 5G technology rollouts.”
Wireless communications carriers have become much tougher on equipment space rental terms for tower sites, according to Bob Paige, senior vice president for mergers and acquisitions at Vertical Bridge, a private tower company based in Boca Raton, Florida.
“We focus on towers in our business, but also data centers and small cells,” he said. “We are, I think, the largest private tower company today.”
Paige spoke at a conference session about privately owned tower companies at the Connectivity Expo convention conducted by the Wireless Infrastructure Association in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Vertical Bridge is seeing increased rental activity from AT&T Mobility and, surprisingly, from Sprint,” he said. “I would tell you their terms have certainly gotten a lot tighter, whether it’s pricing, whether it’s reserve loading or whether it’s escalators. They’re certainly a lot tougher on terms than they were a few years ago when they were active last time.”
AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless not only have expressed dissatisfaction with rental rates. They took action last year to have alternative tower sites constructed on their behalf with the potential for moving equipment from towers they now lease to the new towers. Tower-owning companies such as Vertical Bridge may be responding by negotiating new rates.
“Once we set the new paradigm, we set the new pricing, we set the new loading, we set all the other terms and conditions, I think we’ll go back to business as usual,” Paige said. “Something to notice is that the wireless carriers are doing this at a time when they haven’t been very busy. They’re focused on it because they have resources. Once they get busy, this won’t be off the table because they’ve got to produce. With FirstNet and the AT&T build-out, they’re going to not focus on terms. They’re going to want speed-to-market real soon. When you start seeing 5G rollouts, the wireless carriers all will focus on that. In its build-out, T-Mobile certainly has started to focus on just getting things done. We’re at this paradigm shift in a time when we’re shifting terms. But once we set those, I think it’ll be a new business as usual.”
FirstNet is the First Responder Network Authority, a federal agency to which Congress gave the responsibility to construct, operate and maintain a nationwide public safety broadband wireless network. FirstNet contracted with AT&T to build the network, and AT&T has been using many of its existing facilities, including the towers it rents, to fulfill the contract.
Paige had praise for T-Mobile US, saying it had done an incredibly good job of moving TV broadcast stations from the 600-MHz spectrum the wireless carrier bought in FCC auctions. He said that three years ago, when it became obvious that the FCC would schedule the auctions, T-Mobile started talking with broadcasters to make sure they could exit the spectrum in a timely manner.
Announced about three weeks before the conference at which Paige spoke, the intended merger of T-Mobile and Sprint requires approval by the FCC and the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ). Paige said that if the merger had been announced three or four weeks earlier, he would have given it no chance of obtaining approval.
Paige recalled when the DoJ turned down the AT&T and T-Mobile merger in August 2011 and issued a 16-page document explaining its position. He said when he plugged the metrics of the Sprint and T-Mobile merger into the document’s calculations, the merger looked even more anti-competitive by the Herfindahl-Hirschman index measure of market concentration. “That’s why I took a purely objective view, and I would have said there was no way the DoJ would approve the Sprint and T-Mobile merger,” Paige said.
But he said T-Mobile has done a masterful job of marketing the merger.
“They painted the future,” Paige said. “They said, ‘Don’t just look at today. Look at how this business will look three years, five years, 10 years down the road, and the amount of investment we have to make. It’s two separate companies.’ That’s resonating. We’re not seeing a public outcry against the merger. We’ve had a number of the FCC commissioners go on record as saying they are actually for it. The only uncontrollable force out there that may thwart this is the DoJ.”
Paige said the two companies might have to compromise with the DoJ to obtain approval, and such a compromise could involve spinning off Sprint’s Boost Mobile subsidiary, divesting some radio-frequency spectrum or possibly some anticompetitive markets.
Regarding the pending merger of T-Mobile and Sprint in which T-Mobile would control the resulting combination, Paige said he sees opportunity.
“Let’s assume that the merger goes through and T-Mobile decommissions all 35,000 sites,” Paige said.” We don’t have that many sites with Sprint today. And they’re going to put 10,000 new sites up and they’re going to favor private tower companies. We’re good. We would be net positive if they do that. Having a third healthy carrier that is growing is much better than having four, with two that do not have enough free cash flow to invest in 5G wireless communications. I won’t say T-Mobile and Sprint are not healthy, but they don’t really have the cash flow today to invest in 5G.”
Holding out the prospect that after the merger reduces the count of national carriers to three, a fourth network could start, Paige said: “At some point the FAANGs — Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google — have to do something.”
Paige referred to Dish Network, too, mentioning that its chairman, Charlie Ergen, spoke at the convention to say Dish would build a nationwide network for low-capacity internet-of-things service. He also mentioned cable TV companies as possible fourth network operators.
“Comcast is in the wireless business, whether they know it or not,” Paige said. A mobile virtual network operator doing business as Xfinity Mobile, Comcast uses the Verizon Wireless network to serve its 380,000 customers. Paige said if Xfinity signs up 2 million more subscribers next year as planned, Comcast will need the economic advantage of a network owner, sooner or later. He said Comcast could not keep using Verizon’s network and make a profit.
Whether or not a fourth network starts up after the T-Mobile merger with Sprint, Paige said he expects the near-term effect of the merger to be positive because the merged company’s growth will provide enough business to exceed what will be lost from decommissioned sites.
Vertical Bridge Buying Towers
Vertical Bridge has been a prolific buyer of towers during the past four years, Paige said. “As we are underwriting today, we are giving careful thought when Sprint is a tenant on a tower,” he said. “We have to perform a deeper-dive analysis to figure out whether Sprint is a long-term tenant. We would be acting irresponsibly, if we didn’t.”
On April 18, AT&T and Crown Castle signed an agreement simplifying and expanding their long-term leasing deal for wireless network infrastructure. “Everyone sort of skeptically looked at Crown’s strategy of moving into fiber, and this agreement is the perfect example of where it plays out really well for them,” Paige said. “They’ve extended the conversation with the customers that say, ‘I don’t just talk to you about macros anymore. I talk to you about your network.’ From a strategy perspective, Crown has done a great job of being able to expand the conversation with the customer.”
The Role of Small Cells
Paige said if state governments enact small cell legislation that adheres to the model the Wireless Infrastructure Association recommends, it will be good for the wireless industry. As long as the legislation does not choke the playing field to one technology — small cell versus macro — he said he is on board with it. Paige sees possible trouble with what he calls scope creep, in which legislation defines the size of the antenna structure large enough that small cells begin to approximate macro towers. He said small cell legislation will expedite the rollout of the greater coverage and lower latency that wireless communications users look forward to with 5G.
Small cell is a different business, Paige said, because the value-add is not the node, and it is not the small cell. He said the value-add in that equation is the fiber and managing a network, and a network requires more resources, more people, to manage it than macro sites do.
“We wrestle with small cell decisions as to whether we should stick our toe in some of the small cell things that come our way,” Paige said. “We always take a step back and say if it’s node only, where Verizon is going to build a fiber and we only have to put the pole up, that’s a great business for us. But if they really want a small cell solution, if Verizon or T-Mobile comes to us with a small cell solution, we should let our sister company do that because we don’t really have the technical expertise to handle it.” Digital Bridge owns Vertical Bridge, and it owns ExteNet Systems, a company that builds and owns distributed network systems, of which small cells can be a part.
Revenue from 5G?
Although some speak of the release of standards and the introduction of equipment as leading to 5G deployment, Paige said he believes it will depend more on market demand. He cited estimates of $175 billion to $275 billion to be spent deploying 5G network equipment, and it isn’t obvious to him how this investment will generate another dollar of revenue. “You have to figure how you’re going to generate the revenue to pay for that $200 billion-plus of investment before you actually deploy it,” he said.
“The equipment manufacturers would have you believe that you have to spend the money to drive the innovation,” Paige said. “But I don’t think you’ll go whole-hog on leading with a speculative build before you have some reason to believe it creates some revenue.”
With respect to Paige’s area of focus — mergers and acquisitions — he said acquiring more towers for Vertical Bridge is a matter of supply and demand.
“There’s just not a whole lot out there anymore, and so we’re sort of grabbing from the bottom of the barrel,” he said. He said when towers haven’t had previous ownership changes, there probably is a reason that could be related to problems with documentation, regulation or environmental considerations. “As we get into due diligence with these towers, we’re seeing things we didn’t see several years ago, and you’re seeing it more often. The increased level of due diligence is really a function of supply and demand. There are just not that many transactions these days. What you’re seeing are more challenged transactions.”
The next Connectivity Expo is set for May 20–23 in Orlando, Florida.