Shrinking Cellular Backhaul Revenues

There are a few carriers that rely on cellular backhaul as a major part of their revenue stream, but there are many more carriers that provide transport to a handful of cell sites. In all cases these are some of the highest-margin and lucrative products sold on the market today, and a business line that every carrier wants to keep. However, there are big changes coming in the cellular market and today I will look at the trends that are going to affect this market over the next decade.

Increasing Bandwidth Demand. The growth in bandwidth demand at many cell sites is explosive with the overall growth in cellular data doubling every 18 months. This growth is not the same everywhere with growth coming in cell sites serving residential customers and not in older cell sites built to satisfy highway phone coverage.

The demand growth is being driven by several factors. First, it’s becoming far more prevalent for customers to use cellphones to watch video. Part of that growth in demand comes directly from the big cellular companies which are bundling in access to content as part of the service. But a more important reason for the growth in demand is that the historic reluctance of customers to use cellular data is eroding as the cellular companies push ‘unlimited’ data plans.

Demands for Lower Transport Costs. Cellular service has become a commodity. The industry is no longer adding many new customers since almost everybody has a cellphone. This has led to price wars between cellular providers, and lower average customer prices are driving the cellular companies to look to cost reductions. At least in urban areas they are starting to also lose significant customers to Comcast, with Charter just entering the fray.

Recently I’ve seen cellular companies ask for lower prices as contracts get renewed or else demand greater bandwidth for the prices already in place. This means that fiber owners are not likely to see increases in revenues even as the bandwidth they are delivering grows.

Cellular Carriers Building Fiber. I’ve had several clients tell me recently that Verizon or AT&T is building fiber in their area. While this construction might be to reach a new large customer, the most likely reason these companies are building right now is to eliminate leased transport at cell sites. This is not just happening in urban areas and one of my clients who serves a market of 10,000 homes tells me that Verizon is building fiber to all of the cell sites in the area.

Verizon made headlines last year when they ordered $1 billion in fiber. AT&T is also building furiously. If you believe the claims made by T-Mobile and Sprint as part of the proposed merger – they also will be expanding their own fiber.

I also expect the cellular carriers to make reciprocal deals to swap fiber connections at cell sites where they now own fiber. If Verizon and AT&T each build to 2,000 cell sites they could easily swap transport and both gain access to 4,000 cell sites – that’s a huge nationwide decrease in transport revenues for others.

Growth of Small Cells. Layered on top of all of this is the predicted growth of small cell sites. I don’t think anybody knows how big this might market grow. I’ve seen optimistic predictions that small sell sites will be everywhere and other predictions that the business case for small cell sites might never materialize. Many of my clients are seeing the deployment of a few small cell sites to relive 4G congestion, but it’s hard to predict in smaller markets if this will ever expand past that.

One thing we can know for sure is that the cellular carriers will not be willing to pay the same prices for connection to small cell sites that they’ve been paying for the big cell tower sites. By definition, a smaller cell site is going to serve a smaller number of customers and the pricing must be reduced accordingly for it to make sense for the cellular providers.

Conclusion. My best guess is that cellular transport will be hit and miss depending up the specific local situation. There are many who will lose all cell site transport where the cellular carriers decide to build their own fiber. But even where they don’t build fiber I would expect the cellular carriers to bring the threat of physical bypass into price negotiations to drive transport prices far below where they are today.

This is a natural economic consequence of cellular becoming a commodity. As the cellular industry tightens its belt it’s going to demand lower costs from its supply chain. Transport costs are one of the major costs of the cellular industry and the most natural place for them to look to reduce costs. The big cell companies already understand this future which is one of the primary reasons they are furiously building fiber today while they have the cash to do so.

The Economics of Tower Transport

Many of my clients lease towers and/or fiber transport to reach towers to wireless companies. Since most of my clients operate last-mile networks this is not usually a major source of revenue for them, but it is a significant one, and one of the more profitable things they sell.

I have been advising clients that we are in the midst big changes in the cellular industry and that they should expect payments for cell tower connectivity to start dropping. Transport providers and cell tower owners that won’t renegotiate lower prices could risk losing the business entirely.

Let’s look at AT&T as an example of this. AT&T has been aggressively pushing its vendors to lower prices. At an investor meeting last year AT&T’s president of technology operations told investors that the current industry model is not sustainable. And he is right. As I wrote in a recent blog the entire cellular industry seems to have crossed the threshold where cellular service is becoming a commodity, and that is putting huge pressure on the cellular companies to reduce costs.

Last year FierceWireless posted a letter that AT&T sent to many of vendors telling them to expect to renegotiate rates and terms. In that letter AT&T said that they would pushing for early termination of existing contracts with the expectations of lowering fees. They said they would be looking for the ability to modify or upgrade existing towers for free. And they want to eliminate any automatic price increases and instead have “rents reduced to competitive rates”.

There are two major costs for a cellular company to use somebody else’s tower. First they must lease space on towers including paying for power and space underneath to house equipment. Where AT&T doesn’t own the fiber connecting to the towers they also have to pay for fiber transport to reach the towers. And that transport is not cheap because the bandwidth they need at towers is growing at a torrid pace. Where just five years ago there were very few towers that needed more than a gigabit of bandwidth, I’ve seen rural towers where the carriers are now asking for the right over time to grow to five gigabits. And everything I read about cellular data usage tells me that demand for bandwidth at towers will continue to grow rapidly.

Many of my clients operate in rural areas and some think that their physical isolation makes them immune from any price negotiations with the wireless companies. But I think they are wrong for several reasons.

  • First, I think a lot of the billions being spend by the FCC’s CAF II program is being used to construct fiber to rural towers. AT&T is spending a most of the $2.5 billion from that program to extend fiber into rural areas. And where they build fiber they won’t need to lease it from anybody else.
  • I also suspect that the cellular companies are working with Frontier and CenturyLink, the other two big recipients of CAF II money to piggyback on their fiber expansion to reach cellular towers at a lower cost.
  • Both AT&T and Verizon are also undertaking significant fiber expansion, with one of the goals of that program to cut transport costs. I believe they are doing the math and that they will build fiber to the towers that save them money over the long-run – with those places with the most savings at the top of the list. If they sustain this kind of construction for five or ten years they will eventually be able to bypass most of the towers that they lease today. And the cellular companies should be doing this. If there are going to be lower margins in the cellular business then they ought to use their capital, while they have it, to permanently reduce operating costs.
  • I also suspect that, while AT&T and Verizon are competitors that they are cooperating to reach the more rural cell sites and have transport swap plans in place that save them both money.
  • Finally, these companies have been buying fiber network providers, like Verizon’s purchase last year of XO Communications. It would not be surprising to see them continue to buy companies that provide cell site transport.

The cellular companies and their partners don’t communicate well with smaller transport and cell tower owners. I suspect that many of clients will only get an inkling that a cellular company is going to bypass them when they get the cancellation notice of their contracts. So I have been encouraging folks to reach out to the cellular companies to renegotiate terms and prices. I think that those willing to so might be able to keep this as a long-term revenue stream, but that those that want to stick with higher historical prices will eventually get bypassed and will lose the revenue stream altogether. It’s a tough call, because some places are remote enough that they may never be bypassed – but it’s a crap shoot to guess if your own region is on the fiber-expansion list.