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.