Selling Transport to Small Cell Sites

A lot of my clients make money by selling transport to the big traditional cell sites. Except for a few of them that operate middle-mile networks, the extra money from cell site transport adds a relatively high-margin product into the last-mile network.

Companies are now wondering how hard they should pursue small cell sites. They keep reading about the real-estate grab in the major cities where a number of companies are competing to build small cell enclosures, hoping to attract multiple carriers. They want to understand the size of the potential market for small cells outside of the major metropolitan areas. It’s not an easy question to answer.

The cellular carriers are building small cell sites in larger markets because they have exhausted the capabilities of the traditional large cell sites. The cellular companies have pushed bigger data plans and convinced customers that it’s okay to watch video on cellphones, and now they find that they are running out of bandwidth capacity. The only two immediate fixes are to build additional cell sites (thus, the small cells) or else add more spectrum. They eventually will layer on full 5G capability that will stretch spectrum a lot farther.

There are varying estimates for the eventual market for small cell sites. For example, the CTIA, the lobbying group for the wireless industry, estimates that small cells will grow from 86,000 in 2018 to 800,000 by 2026. The Wall Street analyst firm Cowan estimates 275,000 small cells by the end of 2023.

The big companies that are in the cellular backhaul business are asking the same questions as my clients. Crown Castle is embracing the small cell opportunity and sees it as a big area of future growth. Its competitor American Tower is more cautious and only chases small cell opportunities that have high margins. They caution that the profit opportunity for small cells is a lot less than at big towers. Other companies like Zayo and CenturyLink are pursuing small cells where it makes sense, but neither has yet made this a major part of their growth strategy – they are instead hoping to monetize the opportunity by adding small cells where they already own fiber.

The question that most of my clients want to understand is if the small cell building craze that has hit major metropolitan areas will ever make it out to smaller cities. In general, the big cellular carriers report that the amount of data used on their cell sites is doubling every two years. That’s a huge growth rate that can’t be sustained for very long on any network. But it’s likely that this rate of growth is not the same everywhere, and there are likely many smaller markets where cell sites are still underutilized.

Metropolitan cell sites were already using a lot of broadband even before customers started using more data. We know this because the cellular carriers have been buying and using robust data backhaul to urban sites of a gigabit or more in capacity. One good way to judge the potential for small cell sites is to look at the broadband used on existing tall tower sites. If a big tower site is using only a few hundred Mbps of bandwidth, then the cell site is not overloaded and still has room to accommodate broadband growth.

Everybody also wants to understand the revenue potential. The analyst firm Cowan estimates that the revenue opportunity per small cell site will average between $500 and $1,000 per site per month. That seems like a high price outside of metropolitan areas, where fiber is really expensive. I’ve already been seeing the big cellular carriers pushing for much lower transport rates for the big cell sites and in smaller markets carriers want to pay less than $1,000 per big tower. It probably takes 5 – 7 small cells to fully replace a large tower and it’s hard to envision the cellular carriers greatly expanding their backhaul bill unless they have no option.

It’s also becoming clear that both Verizon and AT&T have a strategy of building their own fiber anyplace where the backhaul costs are too high. We’ve already seen each carrier build some fiber in smaller markets in the last few years to avoid high transport cost situations. If both companies continue to be willing to overbuild to avoid transport costs, they have great leverage for negotiating reasonable, and lower transport costs.

As usual, I always put pen to paper. If the CTIA is right and there will be 800,000 small cell sites within six years that would mean a new annual backhaul cost of almost $5 billion annually for the cellular companies at a cost of $500 per site. While this is a profitable industry, the carriers are not going to absorb that kind of cost increase unless they have no option. If the 800,000 figure is a good estimate, I predict that within that same 6-year period that the cellular carriers will build fiber to a significant percentage of the new sites.

Perhaps the most important factor about the small cell business is that it’s local. I have one client in a town of 7,000 that recently saw several small cell sites added. I have clients in much larger communities where the carriers are not currently looking at small cell sites.

The bottom line for me is that anybody that owns fiber ought to probably provide backhaul for small cells on existing fiber routes. I’d be a lot more cautious about building new fiber for small cell sites. If that new fiber doesn’t drive other good revenue opportunities then it’s probably a much riskier investment than building fiber for the big tower cell sites. It’s also worth understanding the kind of small cell site being constructed. Many small cells sites will continue to be strictly used for cellular service while others might also support 5G local loops. Every last mile fiber provider should be leery about providing access to a broadband competitor.

What’s the Future for Big Towers?

Late last year AT&T announced that is had contracted for the construction of hundreds of new big cellular towers through Tillman Infrastructure. AT&T and Verizon jointly struck a deal to build with Tillman in 2017 and by late last year some of the new towers came online. This doesn’t sound like big news because towers are built every year – but these new towers were built to directly compete with and replace existing big towers. AT&T’s announcement was a warning to existing tower owners – lower your prices or we’ll bypass you.

You can’t blame AT&T and Verizon for this because they pay some of the highest prices for any telecom products to hang radios and to bring bandwidth to big towers. To a large degree, this is a problem of their own making, and the history of big towers is a great example of economics that has gone awry.

When the two companies first got into the cellular business they mostly built their own towers. There were some tall towers in existence – some to support public safety radio networks and many more that were part of the AT&T, MCI, and Verizon microwave backbone networks. You might remember the towers with the big horn antennas. When AT&T longlines started to replace microwave backhaul with fiber in the 1980s they sold the whole tower network to a newly formed company, American Tower. American Tower went on to remove the big horn antennas and leased space back on these towers to AT&T and Verizon for cellular use.

Within a few years, both big cellular carriers agreed to lease towers almost everywhere from American Tower and a few other big tower companies. At the time, both AT&T and Verizon were spinning off huge cash from the rapidly growing cellular business and they both decided to avoid the capital costs of building towers and allowed others to invest in the key infrastructure component of cellular networks. Both carriers also made similar choices about allowing others to construct the fiber needed to connect to their cell sites. Their decision to avoid capital costs turns out to have been a giant mistake in the long run.

Today, cellular companies are feeling huge pressure from competition as the prices of cellular plans have tumbled. Had the big carriers decided years ago to own their key infrastructure – towers and fiber – they would have minimal costs for operating these assets today. Instead, they are paying ever-escalating prices for tower space and fiber transport.

AT&T is now demanding big reductions in tower space rental prices. Building the new towers is an obvious threat that the company is willing to bypass anybody who won’t cut prices. A few hundred new towers is barely a blip in the tower market, but the AT&T message is clear. Last year Verizon used the same tactic to put pressure on fiber providers to lower transport costs – at the risk of Verizon building fiber to their towers and bypassing existing fiber.

All of this is happening at a time when we’re also seeing the proliferation of small cell sites. When I look at the architecture of cellular networks, a significant number of tall towers could be replaced with a network of small cell sites. The cellular network today is really two separate networks. There is the network built to provide cellular traffic along major highways – you see these towers at every few exits along every interstate highway. These towers are not likely to go away, and in fact, the tall towers are needed to provide coverage across large stretches of highway.

But there are a lot of cellular towers that have been built to serve where people live and work. There has been a long-standing unease in many communities about having the big towers in somebody’s back yard. Over time the cellular companies can make many of these towers obsolete as the smaller cell sites take over. (Of course, there is also now unease about having a lot of smaller towers in neighborhoods).

The big tower companies understand this transition. American Tower is leading the way in acquiring pole rights and is building electronics vaults along city streets for small cell sites to support 5G. Like other parts of the telecom market, the cell tower market segment is facing big changes. Just five years ago the big cellular carriers, the tower companies, and the fiber transport companies were all making big money from the cellular market. Today, all are feeling the pinch due to the advent of cellular price competition. It’s going to be interesting to see if AT&T and Verizon make the same choice all over again and lease small cell sites rather than building themselves.