By Sharpe Smith, originally published in Above Ground Level Media Group on 3/10/16.

AGL Conference Panel Ponders Health of Tower Industry

March 10, 2016 — The tower panel at the AGL Conference, held March 8 in Atlanta, agreed that the wireless industry in general, and towers in particular, has great potential for the future. But with leasing in the doldrums last year and so far this year, the conversation surrounded when that future will get here.

The industry trends that make wireless such a successful industry are still in place, according to Clayton Funk, managing director, MVP Capital.

“The tower industry has definitely cooled off, but longer term, trend-wise, it is very positive,” he said. “The macrocellular network is still the number one way for the carriers to provide the consumer with an excellent customer experience.”

That said, the tower industry is currently in “purgatory” with a number of factors possibly causing headwinds, according Funk. Questions surround how much capex is being spent on small cells and fiber deployment, as opposed to funding macrocellular network buildout.

“What will 5G look like and how much revenue will it push to the tower companies? Don’t underestimate how long it will take to find out,” Funk said. Other big picture items worth keeping an eye on include decreasing ARPUs and cost cutting at the carriers, he added.

Black & Veatch was not spared some of the pain in 2015, according to Marty Travers, president, telecommunications at B&V, who said he was happy when the year was over. However, he is L to R: Bob Paige, Vertical Bridge; Clayton Funk, MVP Capital; Marty Travers, Black & Veatch; Doug Dimitroff, Philips Lytle. Not Pictured Pat Tant, Solution Seven (Photo: J. Sharpe Smith) optimistic about 2016 because the reduced capex of the carriers drove the company to diversify into alternative markets, such as Internet of Things/ Machine to Machine (IoT/M2M).

“[Carrier reduced capex] caused us to look at other markets where we could apply the skillsets that we have in infrastructure deployment,” Travers said. “We are looking at alternative markets, including working with Ingenu [on IoT/M2M], where there are small sites spread across large geography. That sits well with our skillsets.”

Surprisingly, work in the wireline sector has picked up some of the slack, as well. In 2014, 95 percent of Black & Veatch’s work was wireless versus 5 percent wireline. This year it is projected to be 65 percent wireless/35 percent wireline.

“Interestingly enough, everyone thought building out wireline capacity was over. That is not the case. It is seeing a significant resurgence. Wireless is still leading the way but we have shifted to an awful lot of fiber to the home projects,” Travers said. “This is the best way to keep our teams together and our expertise sharp.”

Travers is confident carriers will come back to investing in towers, but he urged the audience to take a broader view of the telecommunications landscape.

“Nobody wants less coverage, slower speeds or less capacity. Those will all eventually fuel our industry, but we have to be smart about where else we can apply our skillsets in an effective manner,” he said. “The skillsets that we have, and that this audience has, are applicable to other services.”

Bob Paige, SVP, mergers and acquisitions, predicted that AT&T will be up year over year, Verizon and T-Mobile will be steady, but “Sprint is the wild card.”

“[Sprint has] a lot of challenges with determining their network structure and how to finance the build out,” Paige said. “From our perspective, it really has been only one carrier spending for the last two years, so it is ironic that the tower companies’ stocks have been at historic levels.”

Funk noted that the billions of dollars will be spent on spectrum at the incentive auction this year and will be a drag on tower leasing.

“I think this year is going to be rather slow in terms of capex dollars and it will pick up in 2017/2018,” Funk said. Paige agreed with his assessment.