This past week I attended the CommNexus presentation called The Road to Long Term Evolution (LTE): The Next Generation of Wireless Technology featuring Tami Erwin, President – West Area for Verizon Wireless. And this coming week I am attending the Wireless Infrastructure Show which was recently previewed by FierceWireless as “The opportunity and costs of 4G.” I put these two events on my calendar to broaden my perspective on the impact that 4G will have on cell sites. And while I have only attended the first of the two, I am already pretty excited about the future of wireless and more specifically – cell site leasing.
From the CommNexus event, I learned two things.
1. LTE will revolutionize the industry. Ms Erwin convinced me that LTE will be much more dynamic than anything we are currently experiencing. While she openly acknowledged that the iPhone was a “game changer,” she also pointed out that LTE will go further – much further. This was not a dis on the iPhone, but rather an attempt to show the limitless options before us in a 4G world. A world where machine-to-machine (M2M) wireless will connect everyone and everything. Check-out this video by Alcatel-Lucent that she shared with us.
2. The impact of 4G has not yet been clearly defined. Verizon plans to allow their subscribers to define how LTE evolves rather than attempt to define it themselves. They do not want to limit the impact of LTE by attempting to define it or set an expectation. They are merely building a network that will facilitate it. I’d give that a “thumbs-up” on Facebook!
I anticipate that 4G will change how we communicate much more than analog-to-digital conversions, 2.5G and 3G. But what about the Opinion Pole’s specific niche – what about 4G’s impact on cell sites and cellular antenna leases? As stated in prior blogs, we already know it will significantly increase the number of cell sites, it will lower the average rad center for cell sites, it will increase the number of micro/picocells, it will cause RF engineers to look for ways to off-load traffic to Wi-Fi as often as possible, and it will cause the cellular carriers to evolve into a “dumb pipe.” It will also drive C-Suite executives to focus on OPEX over CAPEX. And all of these things will impact cell site rents.
However, I am anticipating learning much more this week at the Wireless Infrastructure Show. Stay tuned!
From coast to coast, from Canada to Mexico and everywhere in between there is a real estate principle that always applies. You get a better deal if you have two or more properties to choose between. You always get a better deal if you play two owners against each other. This is obvious right?
There is no way I am going to out-negotiate a car salesman because I do not have subject matter expertise. So when I buy a new car, I go to two or three dealerships and play them against each other – in the end the best price wins. You have to create a competitive situation.
This principle holds true for wireless real estate as well. I have negotiated a lease for a cell site covering Wall Street, and a microwave tower in Screw Bean Draw, Texas (yes that is a real place – it is about six miles west of Orla). And I have negotiated for just about every type of property you can think of in between those two. I have been told so many times that if you want the best deal you have to be “a local” (from NYC or SBD) and that if you are not “a local” then you need to hire someone who is from there to negotiate for you. That simply isn’t true. If the landlord wants the monthly rental income, and you treat them with respect, then they’ll negotiate with you no matter how fast or slow you talk. And if you tell them you are choosing between two or more sites you have negotiating leverage.
I had to lower the rent on my rental properties in Florida because there was a glut of vacant condos on the beach four blocks away and my tenants had options – they didn’t want to move, but they certainly had an opportunity to do so and I had to lower my rent to keep them. I have been on both sides of a negotiation where a tenant had legitimate options and it always works to lower the rent.
When negotiating a lease for a new cell site anywhere in the USA, (despite the fact that RF engineers have the option to trump one candidate over another) you will do well to have more than one candidate. Finding alternatives changes the dynamics of a negotiation.
A lot of cell site landlords claim they have “the best site in town” to locate a cellular antenna. Whether it is the lone tower in a small town, the tallest building off town square, the mountain top with the longest line-of-site, or the office building on the corner of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills – many claim their site is unique and best. However this is often not the case – especially as cellular networks become more sophisticated.
As wireless telecommunications technology evolves from 3G to 4G and beyond, so does the definition of “the best site in town.” As I mentioned in a prior article in AGL magazine, (What is the Market Price for Cell Site Rent?) contrary to popular belief, the Empire State Building does not offer the best coverage in Manhattan. One high site can’t handle the millions of calls made each day in New York, nor can it accommodate the bandwidth needed to run voice communication, video, email, music, photo transfers, download apps and more. In other words, taller is no longer better. Today’s network relies on a greater number of low elevation sites to accommodate the growing number of users and the bigger bandwidth requirements necessary to meet technology demands.
Landlords often think that their site is more valuable because it is in a high-traffic area, or it’s the tallest, or it’s centrally located. As noted above, advances in technology are redefining what makes a good cell site. But further, as cell sites come closer to the ground and closer to each other, carriers are less particular about their location. This flexibility, combined with an increasing ability to use non-typical cell sites (such as light poles), creates a competitive environment that drives cell site rents down. The landlord who once had “the best site in town” must now acknowledge that carriers have many viable options to choose from.
The wireless “dumb pipe” is inevitable. The iPhone is certainly accelerating its arrival and it is just a matter of time. The entire strategy of new wireless entrant LightSquared is to be a wholesale dumb pipe. While many believe that the Verizon network is a competitive differentiator, even it is evolving into a commodity. And in a commoditized market, the low cost provider wins.
It is simple business school math. If all wireless networks have relatively comparable coverage that simply transfer bytes back and forth between a handset and the internet then the only differentiators are the handsets themselves and the price for access to the system. While the buzz on the FCC investigation into handset exclusivity has cooled for the time being, price competition is hotter than ever. And price competition means each cellular operator must get more aggressive on cost cutting or their margins will suffer and they will get priced out of the game.
One of the largest items in a cellular operator’s OPEX is the rent roll for tens-of-thousands of cell sites around the country. The largest operators have an estimated seventy-thousand cell sites at an average of $1,700 per month. With built-in rent escalators averaging between three and four percent per year it won’t be long before nation-wide cellular rent rolls top $1.5 billion annually. But wait, it will grow beyond that! The high-tech wireless dumb pipes are actually 4G LTE and WiMAX networks built on top of already existing cellular networks. It is reasonable to expect the number of cell sites in the United States to double or even triple over the next five to ten years.
That’s good news if you own the only zoned and permitted cell tower in Middle America and the mayor is your brother-in-law. But what about more congested areas where traditional roof-top sites and micro/pico cells can be flexibly placed in more than one location? In that scenario cellular operators have options.
With OPEX pressure, any prudent wireless CFO will be looking to lower average rents on their rapidly expanding portfolio of cellular real estate and you can expect that pressure to trickle down to lease negotiators. And those lease negotiators will be more closely weighing their options when negotiating new cell site leases. Expect that trickle down pressure to impact the average rent on new leases.
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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.
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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.
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.