Why I Never Tell Lawyer Jokes

I never tell lawyer jokes.

While I would not describe myself as politically correct and I actually do find many lawyer jokes quite funny, my experience with lawyers in our industry is simply too valuable to make light of them. Not to mention the fact that I may find the butt of one of my jokes opposing me in a courtroom one day and I don’t want them to have any additional motivation to defeat me.

I hold lawyers in high regard because early in my career two lawyers from the Washington DC area that worked in wireless industry had a big influence on me – Caroline Kahl and David Lafuria. At the time, Caroline was the Vice President and General Counsel for Columbia Spectrum Management, the company that allowed me to break into the wireless industry after the PCS auction in 1995. Caroline taught me the significance of reading EVERY WORD of the microwave relocation contracts I was negotiating to clear the 1900MHz spectrum for the new auction winners. She was certainly a good enough attorney that I could have gotten away with letting her worry about the legal details after I negotiated the business terms, but she taught me that by fully understanding every word of the contract I became a much better negotiator. A couple of years later, David, who was and still is a Partner at Lukas, Nace, Gutierrez and Sachs helped me put together some ironclad buy-sell agreements and leases for towers that easily stood the test of time and an unexpected legal challenge. I remember reviewing some year-end financials in the late 1990’s and realizing how much we had paid David’s firm. I did not hesitate to acknowledge the amount we paid was far less than how much his strong agreements saved us in the end.

In early 2005 Md7 was transitioning out of start-up mode with our first big opportunity to negotiate some lease amendments and I put together the initial version of the Md7 training manual for the first thirteen Lease Consultants (LCs) we hired. While much of that training manual has evolved over time, one piece is basically the same as I wrote in January of 2005 – what we call at Md7 “Four Cornering a Lease”.

Technically speaking, Black’s Law Dictionary defines Four Corners as follows.

The face of a written instrument. That which is contained on the face of a deed (without any aid from the knowledge of the circumstances under which it is made) is said to be within its four corners, because every deed Is still supposed to be written on one entire skin, and so to have but four corners. To look at the four corners of an instrument is to examine the whole of it, so as to construe it as a whole, without reference to any one part more than another.

In the Md7 training manual, we say that the Four Corners Rule means

In contract law, the four corners rule is the doctrine that the meaning of a document is to be gathered from the entire (or all four corners of the) document. This includes all Exhibits, Addendums, Attachments, as well as all amendments.

We want our Md7 LCs to not only limit their understanding of a given lease to the contents of the document only, but we also want each one to understand that they must read and understand the lease in its entirety including exhibits, and amendments. NO EXCEPTIONS. Caroline Kahl taught me how to appreciate every word of a microwave relocation agreement, and I hope that I am passing along this appreciation to each LC at Md7.

But let’s be realistic. Md7 processes literally hundreds of lease agreements and amendments each month. It is not possible for every LC to read every word of every lease of each deal they negotiate. Over the last ten years, Md7 has refined a handful of technics that we systemically implement to allow each lease consultant to negotiate in volume without sacrificing the contractual quality of each deal.

1. Negotiate in general terms, then iron-out the details. While every LC has access to electronic copies of all relevant documents at his or her finger tips, you can’t ask someone to “please hold” while you read the entire lease agreement so you can discus a clients desire to modify the site. Thus we train our LCs work in general terms first, explain to the landlord what we are trying to in broad terms, thereby seeking to obtain an initial buy-in, then follow-up a later date (after having thoroughly familiarized themselves with the existing documents) to negotiate the final details.
2. Train and retrain on the key clauses in lease agreements. Most lease negotiations do not require a haggling over every word. Md7 trains each LC multiple times on the key paragraphs such as term, rent, rent escalations (an often ignored clause that often comes back to bite our clients down the road), use rights, premises definitions, upgrade rights and other key clauses that can save our clients tens-of-thousands (often even hundreds-of-thousands) of dollars over the life of a single lease.
3. Rigorous use templates. At the beginning of each new project Md7 works with a client to develop a lease template (as many in our industry do), but we actually load this document into LiveTrack (our proprietary software system) and lock it down so that only our legal team acting with client approval can make significant changes to the template. We then rigorously train and retrain our LCs and LPs (Lease Processors) on that specific template for the life of a given project. We also train our team to negotiate very hard to keep all deals “within the box” of that template so that we limit the amount of time needed by our counsel (and our clients counsel) to review and approve deals that fall outside of the template and pre-approved business parameters.
4. Rigorous oversight by our business and legal team. – Once a deal with Landlord is reached, it goes through an Md7 internal quality check process. All modifications to program template documents are reviewed by a lease processing manager to confirm such variations are strictly necessary. The LC must provide justification for any variations. Additionally, any additional language requested by a Landlord is reviewed by our legal department to ensure there is no other alternative available to satisfy the Landlord’s stated concerns. To the extent that non-standard language is required to close the deal, Md7 will work with the carrier’s counsel to obtain the necessary legal approvals. Throughout this process, wherever approval of non-standard language or business terms are required, Md7 documents the negotiations so that carrier has complete visibility into the negotiation process.
5. Use incentives to motivate LCs to keep deals “in-the-box” – One of the keys to Md7’s success over the last ten years has been incentive based pay. Our LCs are financially rewarded for keeping a deal within preapproved business parameters and all terms on the preapproved template document. You’d be surprised how well this works to limit unnecessarily high rent and lease terms that can significantly impact an operator long after the new or upgraded site is deployed.
6. Be smart – LCs at Md7 are well trained, and they know it. They are trained on the lease documents, the equipment being installed at a site, the industry, cell site economics and our software to track each of their deals. Md7 LCs do not read from scripts. They have been trained to master the key elements of their job and are comfortable negotiating the key clauses and business terms for each specific project they are assigned. They are confident in their ability because they have been recruited and trained specifically for their position.

At the conclusion of every training session on “Four Cornering a Lease” I ask our LCs and LPs-in-training to summarize the two-day training in one phrase. As you can imagine, initially I get a variety of answers such as:

• “Read every word, every time!”
• “Don’t try to BS your way through a negotiation”
• “Take your time because each deal is important”
• “If you don’t understand something in a lease, ask for help”

Typically, after three or four guesses, one of the trainees gives me the answer I am trying to draw out of them:

“Respect the Lease.”

That’s right… “Respect the Lease.” Each LC and LP at Md7 is trained to give each cell site lease agreement or amendment that he or she negotiates and/or processes its due respect to ensure a consistent, quality document that our clients can rely on for the long-term.

This training has been a standard practice at Md7 since February 2005 and I don’t see it changing anytime soon.

Verizon iPhone has sparked the public race for “4G”

After all the speculation, all the anticipation, it is official – Verizon has begun selling the CDMA iPhone.  While I am a loyal Blackberry guy with no intention of switching, I must admit I am excited about the announcement.  You see, if you listened closely around the time of the announcement, you may have heard the shot fired from the starting gun for the race for the next generation of wireless coverage.  Actually it started long before that in the “war rooms” of each of the nationwide cellular operators but now the race is being run in public view – just watch one NFL football game for the ads they are running.

What is generally being marketed as “4G” will bring with it a massive expansion in the cellular networks – the largest infrastructure boom in the wireless industry since 1996 when the FCC auctioned off the PCS licenses releasing a lot of spectrum and networks began to upgrade from analogue to digital.  There is speculation that some iPhone users will jump from AT&T to Verizon because of the frustrations they experienced with AT&T coverage (actually it was a capacity problem, not a coverage problem). And some will wait to see if Verizon is prepared.  Regardless of your expectations or loyalties to one operator or another, one thing is sure – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon all are in the process of upgrading their respective networks.  And, these upgrades will have two large impacts on their respective networks. 

First, each network will be substantially faster.  WiMAX, LTE, and HSPA+, will take each system to another level and that is great for consumers.  Whether you use the iPhone, Blackberry or Droid you are about to see an increase in speed which will in turn facilitate an explosion of even cooler apps and eventually machine-to-machine communication.

Second, the number of cell sites are about to significantly increase.  At first they will be overlaid on top of already existing sites and tower companies will see a big early bump in leasing revenue.  This initial overlay will establish 4G coverage nationwide.  But then the number of smartphones will quickly increase and so will consumers data usage and these initial sites will not offer adequate capacity because you can’t shove ten pounds of data through a five pound cell site.  While they can’t build ten pound cell sites, they can build two five pound sites.  Or go even further to manage capacity by building ten one-pound sites – one on every street corner and cul-de-sac.  All this because our appetite for data is about explode!!!

Cell Site Leases in the Future

Cellular history

I remember the first time I saw a mobile phone.  It was circa 1987 and it belonged to a sports agent that was visiting a couple of friends of mine who happened to be college athletes.  I drove them to the airport in my Honda Prelude to pick him up for lunch.  As he stepped off the private plane into my back seat I remember asking him “why he had two brief cases?”  He replied “oh no, the second one is my phone.”  At that moment I knew my buddies were going to sign with him – some guys just can’t resist a big battery. 

The cellular industry has come a long way since then.  The briefcase phone became the bag phone which evolved into the brick phone, then the flip-phone, the camera phone and now the smart-phone. Just as the handset has evolved so has the network – from analog to digital to 2.5G, to 3G…  And cell sites have evolved too.  From the first one at Soldier Field in Chicago and remote mountain top sites, to tall towers and the tallest building in town, to monopoles and lower roof-tops to light poles.  Shelters at cell sites have become cabinets and even suit-cased sized boxes. 

Cellular Future

If we look forward we will see that the iPhone is just the beginning.  The embedded wireless device is about to change it all again.  We are rapidly approaching a world where we’ll have hidden wireless devices inside everyday items such as HVAC, appliances, medical devices, even our dogs.  Farmers will remotely control their irrigation systems with apps on the smartphones, heart-monitors will notify you and your doctor before your heart fails.  Disposable, one-use-only devices will automatically reorder household items when packages are empty.  We are limited only by our own creativity.

But this post-modern technology won’t run on the current networks.  4G networks and beyond require more cell-splitting and lower rad centers. Cabinets and boxes are becoming remote radio heads.  And, while we will still have a lot of towers in rural and sub-urban areas, DAS and picocells on the side of buildings and light poles will sustain capacity in urban and dense urban markets. 

What about cell site leases?

You can’t have a technological explosion like this without updating the underlying cell site leases as well.  We are already seeing a large jump in the number of modifications to existing sites – many of which require amendments to the underlying leases.  These requests are coming at a more rapid pace than we have ever seen.  And the number of cell sites – particularly in urban areas – is about to significantly increase.

Let’s be smart about how we negotiate new and amended lease documents!  These deals need to be flexible and cost effective to sustain this rapid growth.  Expansion and modification rights must be ongoing, rents must be manageable for the long haul.  And cellular operators should rethink how they manage their massive real estate portfolios.  As we enter into the age of outsourced network administration, lease administration is a non-core function that should optimized too.

In short, as we approach 2011, let’s keep up with the times and rethink how cell site leases are negotiated and managed.

Quote of the Month – Coverage vs Capacity – 4G Cell Sites

Quick shout-out to Phil Goldstein for his article posted here today on FierceWireless.  Here is an excellent quote from it. 

Coverage vs. capacity: Cisco’s Visual Networking Index predicted earlier this year that mobile data traffic will increase 39 times between 2009 and 2014. To meet that demand, Clearwire CTO John Saw said there needs to be an industry-wide paradigm shift away from coverage and toward capacity. “Our cell sites are not able to meet the needs when we become a capacity-driven business and not a coverage-driven business,” he said referring to the broader industry. “Is it time to move up.”

Tower companies, Saw said, need to think less about macro sites and more about micro sites, picocells, distributed antenna systems and rooftop deployments for urban areas.”

Is That Salsa On Your Steering Wheel?

Time for the Way Cellular Antenna Leases Are Negotiated to Change.

The way cellular antenna leases are identified and negotiated is out-dated and has changed little since the cellular phone industry’s explosive growth began in 1995. Md7 Chairman and CEO, Michael Gianni, describes the traditional site acquisition process as agents “parachuting in, grabbing a rental car and driving all over town leaning over the steering wheel while they eat a burrito and look up in the air for potential cell sites.” Those traditional site acquisition agents had no incentive to negotiate a good lease with low rents and solid contract language that lasted the life of a traditional cell site. The traditional cellular antenna lease was just another “pay-point” on a fixed fee services agreement. Agents not only negotiated the lease but had to battle municipal administrators for permits and zoning approvals and many other pay-points before their work was done and a new site could be constructed. They were given as many search rings as they could handle and paid to get leases signed as fast as possible – there were few if any incentives to keep the rent down and negotiate solid lease terms.

While this strategy worked well in the short-term – it enabled cellular operators to build networks as fast possible, this was a classic case of “if you want it bad, you get it bad.” If you are in a hurry and don’t take the time to negotiate a lease properly you will pay for it in the long run. Cellular phone operators are now paying the long term price. The national average for cell site rent is estimated to be around $1,750 per month. If this is accurate, then for every 50,000 cell sites, a carrier has an annual rent roll of approximately $1 billion. The largest cellular operators in the United States have an estimated 65-70,000 cell sites. Thus they are pushing $1.5B and it increases by 3% every year before they even build one new site.

Carriers used competition to beat the site acquisition pay-point as low as it can go. Site acquisition agents are now commoditized and many of the good ones have moved on (or cashed out). But the leases are no better; the starting rents are still too high and language still has to be amended each time a site is modified. With the advent of 4G, our industry will double and maybe even triple the number of cell sites in the United States. Time to change the way cell sites leases are negotiated.

Why Cellular Operators Are Building Smaller Cell Sites

Picocell in Beverly Hills

The most common thing I heard at the CTIA 2010 trade show this week at the Las Vegas Convention Center was that wireless operators will need more spectrum as they deploy WiMAX and LTE networks – generally marketed as 4G. This need was discussed twice within the opening hours of the show. First at the opening morning Raymond James Breakfast Roundtable which was part of the Tower Technology Summit co-located at CTIA and more notably in the opening key note address by Ralph de la Vega, President and CEO of AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets. While earlier this month the FCC announced its plan to free up 500 MHz of spectrum in the next ten years, 300 MHz of which is expected within five years, the mobile operators can’t wait that long. New smartphones are fueling an insatiable consumer demand for applications that hog bandwidth, which in turn will require mobile operators to manage the spectrum they have more efficiently.

For me, this was the tone of this year’s trade show and thus raised the obvious question – what are carriers to do until they get the additional spectrum they need? Answer: Perform cell splits— decrease the cell radii and insert more cell sites to try to eek out more capacity with the limited spectrum they have. The simplified math works like this – you can have several users all downloading large amounts of data through one 4G cell site or you can break that site into multiple smaller cell sites to spread the consumer demand. By subdividing cell sites carriers can try to get more capacity out of their limited spectrum, at the risk of decreased efficiency and increased interference in the network.

These smaller cell sites are known as microcells, picocells and femtocells. Microcells usually have a cell radius of one mile or less. Picocells have a cell radius of a city block or less. The equipment for a picocell can be quite small, even deployed on light poles or street corners in dense, urban areas and are common in large public facilities like football stadiums, shopping centers, office buildings, airports, etc. And femtocells are typically private cell sites in a home or small office with four or less private users. Click here for a prior opinionpole.net blog on femtocells.

One thing is for sure, none of these three types of small cell sites are found on top of the typical cell tower. While there will always be a need for traditional cell towers, particularly for rural coverage, and high rooftop cell sites in urban areas, they are going to become less critical as network traffic begins to get off-loaded to these sites.

Ready, Set, Rent!

Coke Bottle AntennaSee Full Article in PDF
When the A/B Block PCS Auction ended in 1995 an unusual real estate phenomenon occurred. Cellular operators paid way too much to lease it. No, this wasn’t driven by low interest rates, the refi boom, Option ARMs or teaser rate mortgages. It was driven by a race for market share.

And, boy, was it a doozy. An analog-based industry had just gone digital. Wall Street was throwing money at this new enterprise as they were starting to inflate the dot-com bubble, and the FCC found a new revenue source for something they had previously given away for free. 

Before there was an auction for spectrum, the government had employed an inefficient lottery system to allocate spectrum. When the government realized that they could be the ones making money out of thin air (as economist Peter Cramton quipped after the first auction 15 years ago), the wheels were set in motion for a new industry dynamic that would profoundly affect future operating costs and the way carriers do business.

I know because I was there. I watched as players like WirelessCo, AT&T, PCS PrimeCo, Pacific Telesis, GTE, American Portable Telecommunications, Ameritech Wireless, Western PCS, Powertel PCS Partners and others together paid in excess of $7 billion for spectrum and then turned around and spent billions more to build their network — all before even selling their first PCS phone. They needed the frequency to build the network. They needed the network to sell the phones. They needed to sell the phones to appease the investors. The race was on.

Continue reading – full article in PDF

500 Percent Penetration

As published in AGL Magazine (December 2009)

In his address at the CTIA Wireless 2009 convention regarding the future of the wireless industry, Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg made a compelling case that “500 percent penetration is not only possible, it’s probable. Imagine a day when you not only own a smart phone, but also a wireless card in your laptop, a service such as On-Star for your car, an Amazon Kindle that downloads books on Sprint’s cellular network, and a wireless MP3 player on which you can download music. Oh, wait! That day is already here. We even already have lifesaving devices such as wireless heart monitors that transmit your vital signs to your doctor before a heart attack occurs.

Actually, the advancements we will see in wireless health care go far beyond the medical e-records that President Obama promised as part of his push for health care reform. Donald Jones, an executive at Qualcomm and the chief wireless officer for the West Wireless Health Institute, told attendees at a recent CommNexus meeting in San Diego that we can expect to see the “Kindleization of healthcare.” Essentially, that means that not only will we have remote monitoring of all our medical conditions, but also we will even have wireless bandages, we’ll just push a wireless strip on the box when we are down to one bandage and a replacement box will be shipped to us. In other words, 4G is going to take wireless to an entirely new level. As Seidenberg pointed out, the day when cellular networks will not only connect people to other people, but also connect people to machines and machines to machines is upon us. And in our lifetime, we will see a house managed by wireless devices embedded in the HVAC, the oven and maybe even the toaster. So, it is not hard to imagine a world where each person has at least five wireless devices of some sort — thus, 500 percent penetration.

500 percent for cell sites

Multiple devices per user means more cell sites — lots more. No wireless operator will want to be the company that lost a connection just as grandma’s vitals were being transmitted to the doctor’s office. But, these newer cell sites will be much different from the sites built for traditional voice service. Cell sites for 1G and 2G networks were typically built for coverage, thus the tallest site available covered the greatest area. There weren’t as many subscribers, so capacity was not an issue. As penetration grew, however, fill-in sites with lower rad centers were built to increase the capacity of the network. As user needs develop and networks mature, RF designs tend to shift from coverage to capacity. Sites will be more subscriber focused, offering greater bandwidth, greater capacity and more flexibility. Currently, 3G and 4G technologies use various techniques to provide a tradeoff between capacity and range, so there are still a variety of high, low and in between sites. Technology has enabled carriers to increase the range of their sites by reducing the throughput of the devices. Technology combined with subscriber demand for faster data rates is necessitating the continuous building of more sites.

In other words, with only voice technology, you either had connectivity or you didn’t, and everyone within range of the mountaintop site had coverage. Now, as handsets evolve and subscribers expect greater data rates, sites are developed to support subscribers and are more capacity oriented. So, no single site is as important as it used to be. Although RF engineers avoid holes in coverage, the use of many more lower sites means smaller holes; thus, on average, individual sites are less critical. An analogy: If you have one car, it’s pretty valuable. Without it, you can’t go anywhere. However, if you have a fleet of hundreds of cars, any particular car isn’t as valuable because you have others that can temporarily take up the slack if necessary.

500 percent for tenants

Watching penetration climb past 100 percent (as it already has in many European cities) does not necessarily translate into a corresponding increase in average revenue per user (ARPU) for network operators. The $100 per month we pay for unlimited plans for our smart phones does not include the card for your laptop, which is a separate $60. Sprint doesn’t charge for the Kindle access — it is included in the purchase price of the device when you buy it from Amazon. com. Medical devices will most likely work the same way. Consumers won’t be willing to pay extra for the ability to reorder supplies — that is a cost that will have to be covered by the seller. Wireless carriers still have to figure out pricing schemes for embedded wireless. And while we wait for those pricing models to take shape, we can be sure that 500 percent penetration does not mean a 500 percent increase in revenue for carriers — and it never will.

In fact, for a multiple-device world to exist, devices and airtime must be cheaper — much cheaper. No one will pay $99.99 per month for a wireless link between their car and their microwave oven just to make sure their day-old pizza is warm precisely as they pull into the garage. It must be cost-effective to be attractive, and that means cell site tenants will continue to drive down costs to support their overall goal to reduce operating expenses to keep up with the cost of subscriber demands. And over time, the reality is that rent is the biggest carrier expense for a cell site.

 

500 percent for landlords

No one would question that needing more cell sites increases the demand for antenna locations, and that is good for landlords. But as previously mentioned, the new sites are different and more flexible. So don’t expect to see as many tenants begging for the same location. Just as the handset has evolved, so has the cell site and, thus, the cell site lease. Generally speaking, multiple, tall, rooftop sites have replaced the mountaintop site, and lower rooftop sites are replacing tall rooftop sites, and lightpoles and femtocells are replacing lower rooftop sites. If every house gets a femtocell, the tall tower is much less vital to the tenant. For a carrier, the big benefit of femtocells is that they improve coverage and capacity while reducing capital and operating expenses.

If the cell site network comes down to the level of one site per house, carriers are not going to pay $1,800 per month for that site. As a matter of fact, carriers are not willing to pay anything for a femtocell in your house — they actually charge for that.

 

So what?

As wireless innovation and growth become more deeply embedded in every facet of our daily lives, what does this mean for cell sites? Doesn’t rapid technological evolution mean the need for more sites, and won’t cell site owners expect t0 see more demand for access to their sites, thus increasing rents? Well, if all the new technologies operate on the exact same sites as existing equipment, yes. But that is not necessarily the case. There will be more telecommunications sites, no doubt about it, but the increased demand won’t necessarily be for the same types of sites. New sites will be smaller, with a lower rad center, and will require less square footage. For example, the equipment for a WiMAX network is much smaller than traditional cellular equipment, and a 4G network operator has much more flexibility about where that equipment is located. Thus, it is not reasonable to expect them to pay the same amount as a traditional voice carrier would pay to have its antennas 150 to 200 feet in the air. A 4G network operator’s antenna array is smaller and lighter, and the 4G base station is not much different in size from one of my wife’s suitcases.

The dynamics between cell site landlords and tenants are changing. Cellular operators are looking for long-term partnerships with their thousands of landlords. Landlords would do well to treat their tenants like partners and customers with a long-term view in mind — which is simply prudent business.

Cell Phones Are Like Hamburgers

CellburgerAs published in AGL (Aug 2009) – PDF of Full Article

Whether or not you are a McDonald’s restaurant fan, there is no denying that the foodservice retailer has one of the most successful business models ever conceived — and not for the reasons you think. When McDonald’s Corporation founder Ray Kroc asked a group of business students what business he was in and they replied “fast food,” he quickly corrected them and said, “No, I am in the real estate business.” Although McDonald’s Big Mac hamburgers may have been a tasty fast food novelty, it was Kroc’s well-selected real estate that actually sold burgers. But there is much more to that story.

In a similar manner, you could say that the operators of cellular networks are not in the “phone business” but in the real estate business. Without well-located cell sites, they would not have adequate coverage and thus could not sell much airtime no matter how cool the latest handset. Although well-managed real estate has proven to be the key to a successful business model, wireless network operators haven’t exactly followed Kroc’s path. Let’s take a look at the lessons operators could learn from hamburgers.

Kroc struggled to make money in what most consider to be his primary business, selling the method originated by brothers Dick and Maurice “Mac” McDonald for mass-producing hamburgers in less than a minute. Kroc credited Harry Sonneborn, a former vice president of finance at Tastee Freeze who became McDonald’s chief financial officer and later its president and chief executive officer, for McDonald’s “real moneymaking engine . . . its little-known real estate business,” wrote John F. Love in McDonald’s: Behind the Arches.

In 1955, Sonneborn suggested that McDonald’s should control the real estate used by franchisees, as the idea was described in Forbes Greatest Business Stories of All Time by Daniel Gross and the Forbes magazine staff. In 1956, Sonneborn helped Kroc create Franchise Realty. Through Franchise Realty, McDonald’s made money by “leasing or buying potential store sites and then subleasing them to franchisees, initially at 20 percent markup and then 40 percent markup,” the book said. Eventually, franchisees would “then pay McDonald’s either a minimum rate or a percentage of sales …and … the company would collect more and more rent as its costs remained constant.”

In the early days of McDonald’s growth, Kroc would fly over the growing suburbs looking for open land near a church steeple because he wanted to be where the people were. In the cellular phone industry, I am sure a site acquisition agent or two also have driven around looking for church steeples.

Besides the fact that cell phones don’t taste good even with cheese, the difference between the two industries is in those early days of rapid growth. Unlike Kroc, who flew the countryside looking for the best locations to lease to franchisees, tower site acquisition agents drove every back road and alley looking for the best coverage, as fast as they could. They weren’t focused on making a profit for their clients on the real estate itself. Most weren’t even given incentives to find the best deal, because signed leases were pay points on their service contracts, regardless of rent amounts. In the end, they were more interested just getting a site leased so the operator could offer coverage more quickly. But as they say, location, location, location is the key to real estate, and if the cellular operators weren’t going to watch the long-term dollars spent on those sites, someone else was. The two primary beneficiaries were the tower companies that started popping up nationwide and the thousands of real estate owners who just happened to own the tallest site in an area or the one at a critical roadway intersection. Because cellular operators were more focused on speed to market and coverage than they were on the price of real estate, debt was bound to fund tower development and building owners got insane deals for rents on what is, for the most part, unusable space — rooftops.

The hamburgers and cell phones comparison diverges further. There are far more cell sites offering coverage than there are McDonald’s locations offering hamburgers, and the operators built their networks as tenants rather than landlords.

This is the defining difference between cell phones and hamburgers. Kroc made more and more money from his real estate holdings as their leases transpired, but the cellular operators are experiencing ever-escalating rents costs and tighter margins. Over the long term, rent is by far the largest expense in operating a cell site. This is an expense operators didn’t pay much attention to when they were rapidly expanding networks and adding subscribers. Now they have no choice but to focus on it.

Think like Ray Kroc

Kroc followed Americans to the suburbs, and cellular network operators are following the world everywhere. There are more than 30,000 McDonald’s restaurant locations worldwide. That does not even begin to compare to the more than 242,000 cells sites nationwide, a number that will continue to grow exponentially during the next five years. And we are far more addicted to our phones than we are to our burgers — well, most of us, anyway. All this is said to make the point that operators of cellular networks would do well to think like Ray Kroc and take command of their real estate before the networks collapse because of untenable operating costs.

Ultimate competitor

Biographers describe Kroc as the ultimate competitor who was so ruthless that after buying the naming rights from the McDonald brothers for the outrageous price of $2.7 million, he opened a location one block from their original store just to drive them out of business. He was also obsessed with standards, such as his insistence that all potatoes be cut to exactly 9/32 of an inch to become a McDonald’s fry. Cellular network operators are obsessed with standards, too. They are constantly trying to “raise the bar” so you can “hear me now” when we “stick together” on the “now” network. But historically, they have not been competitive in the management of their real estate portfolios.

Real estate is the core asset for thousands of companies, and they manage it as such. With the exception of oil and gas exploration companies and railroads, rarely has a company had as large a real estate portfolio as cellular operators. From the beginning, the cellular network operators have focused on their “hamburgers” — that is to say, their technology — and have done a great job of it. But now they need to focus on their real estate assets either internally or through outsourcing, or their “hamburgers” won’t be worth a dime.

This realization is dawning on operators around the globe. I argue that President Obama is not the only change we will see in the next few years.

PDF of Full Article

What is the Market Price for Cell Site Rent?

                                                     IMG_0494
As originally published in AGL (April 2009) – PDF of Full Article
 
WHAT IS IT WORTH?

 

Everyone wants to get paid what they’re worth.

Whether it’s based on principle or pride, it absolutely galls us when someone else gets a better deal, or we lose out to someone who undercuts our asking price. While we steadfastly hold something’s worth as an absolute, we have often come to this determination by a subjective, mind’s eye calculation of what is commonly referred to as “the going rate.”

For cell site landlords, the determination of worth goes something like this: “My buddy is making $1,650 a month on his cell site lease and my site is in a much better location than his so I should be getting $1,800.”

Landlords are often irked and even angered when they are told that’s not the rate that the tenant wants to pay. They think they’re getting gypped. They don’t understand why this tenant is not honoring the going rate. And therein lies the problem: never confuse the “going rate” with the “market rate.” The last house to sell on my street in San Diego almost a year ago has nothing to do with what a different buyer will pay for my house today.

The real market rate for cell site leases is not what another tenant paid down the street. In today’s business environment, it’s what the competing potential landlord across the street will accept. Thanks to carriers’ escalating operating costs, the public’s voracious appetite for new technology and the network’s evolving engineering requirements, cell site leasing has become a competitive marketplace. Let’s take a look at what landlords can do to protect their income. (Continue reading full article in PDF)

See full article in PDF

The Perfect Storm for Wireless Operators

Clooney

According to Wikipedia a “perfect storm” is an expression that describes an event where a rare combination of circumstances will aggravate a situation drastically.” The term gained popularity when George Clooney stared in a film called The Perfect Storm (based on the book by Sebastian Junger of the same name) about the 1991 Halloween Nor’easter in which three weather conditions combined to generate a perfectly fierce and deadly situation:

• warm air from a low-pressure system coming from one direction,
• a flow of cool and dry air generated by a high pressure from another direction, and
• tropical moisture provided by Hurricane Grace.

Today in both Europe and North America, the wireless industry shows its own combination of circumstances which could create a future perfect storm:

market saturation – it is estimated that 85-90% of Americans own a cell phone and the number in many European countries are estimated to be at or over 100%,
cheaper “all-you-can-eat” rate plans – in the USA, all of the four major carriers offer voice/data plans for $99/month and Metro PCS offers voice plans for as low as $50/month, and
increasing OPEX – the two largest expenses for wireless carriers are payroll and rent roll and both are inflating.

It doesn’t take a meteorologist to forecast enormous pressure on cellular operating margins. And it is safe to assume that cellular operators have and will continue to focus on this issue.

On the revenue side of the equation, operators will battle it out for the final 10-15% of market share, and operators will continue to search for more ways to increase ARPU by adding cool apps and services as well as introducing cooler handsets to encourage subscribers to remain loyal and/or switch to their service. The iPhone/Blackberry battle is the classic example of this.

On the expense side, these conditions place pressure on payroll and rent roll and operators are looking for ways to lower OPEX. Expect to see more outsourcing and tighter cost controls. Also expect to see more rigorous scrutiny applied to lease costs. With annual rent rolls in the billions, operators will be keeping a close eye on the rent expense.

Discussing Cellular Leases at PCIA 2009

In my first Opinion Pole blog I commented that PCIA 2008 in Hollywood, Florida was silent on cellular leases – not the site acquisition process itself, but on the actual leases documents and what can be done to improve them for the betterment of the entire industry.  Well I am happy to note herein that PICA 2009 in Nashville, Tennessee was better.  The company I work for (Md7, LLC) pushed the topic and began driving the conversations a bit more than usual this year.  While it is not my goal to turn this blog into a promotion for my company, it was through the presence of Md7 on two panels and hosting a hospitality suite that we were able to have several public and private conversations about leases and how to make them better.

My colleagues, Thomas Dolislager and Sudeep Gupta both participated on panels in which improved leases were at least part of the conversation.  Thomas’ panel was called “Outsourcing to Experts: How to Reap the Benefits” and was sponsored by Message Center Management.  The biggest take away from this discussion was to trust experts and select specialists who do one or two things really well.  Lease documentation is no exception.  While lease negotiations and preparations have long been entrusted to site acquisition companies and law firms, I do see a trend to concentrate in this area even further. 

Meanwhile, Sudeep participated on a panel called “Innovative Strategies for Reducing Network OpEx” where he raised the very valid point that over time the single biggest cost of operating a cell site is the rent expense.  Monthly rent that escalates each year will eventually outweigh the cost of base stations, zoning, maintenance and even construction.  So if rent is in fact the largest expense, then it makes sense to concentrate on managing it and making the documents themselves more efficient and standard.   
 
While not everyone agrees with me that there is a LOT of room for improvement in the hundreds-of-thousands of cellular lease documents currently in existence in the United States and abroad, most agree that rents are high and leases have to be negotiated and renegotiated multiple times – especially each time and upgrade is made to a cell site.  Let’s find ways to improve this process.

The Silence Is Broken

In the middle of the 2008 PCIA show in Hollywood, Florida I asked Dustin Cahill who works with me at Md7 if he heard anything and with a strange look on his face he shook his head and said “I don’t hear anything.”  To which I responded “Exactly!”  He thought I was crazy, but I was making a point – the wireless infrastructure show (and the wireless industry as a whole) was noticeably silent on my favorite professional topic – cellular leases and how to how to improve them.

Oh, there is always plenty of talk about site acquisition, zoning problems, and regulatory issues.  That is the same ole stuff.  In 2008 I also heard a lot of talk about DAS, “drop and swaps” and of course the “Titans of Tower” hour was very interesting.   But no one was talking about the leases themselves.  Things like: What are the key terms in a good lease? How can these key terms be improved?  Can we bag CPI escalators forever? And the all important one our industry seems to never openly discuss, why are rents so high and what can be done about it?

I have committed the last five years of my career to these very questions and had some very interesting conversations – some positive and some not.  Some people liked what I was saying and some told me I was crazy – some even hurled a few personal insults.  But seriously, we need to be talking about this topic and others.

It took me several months since that inspirational moment in South Florida last year to figure out Web 2.0, social networking, tweeting, connecting, making Facebook friends and the hardest of all – WordPress. But you are reading the result; my first blog!  This is the introduction of my contribution to sharing information among wireless industry players to encourage what I call “mutually beneficial outcomes.”

I’ll try not to be narcissistic in here.  I am not blogging to change the world, self-promote or generate business for myself.  I simply would like to engage in legitimate, interesting, respectful conversation and make acquaintances within the wireless industry – whether we agree or not.  Let’s call it stimulating professional conversation.

So, I hope you’ll enjoy the Opinion Pole and check back in regularly.  I look forward to chatting with you!