View From the Top : An Insight

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Executives share outlook for carrier spending, fiber and small cells

Top executives from American Tower, Crown Castle, SBA Communications, Vertical Bridge and InSite Wireless shared industry insights this week with WIA President Jonathan Adelstein and an attentive audience at the Wireless Infrastructure Show.

Carrier spending was, of course, a major topic of discussion, and the group agreed that while spending has slowed somewhat, the dip is nothing more than the cyclicality that has always characterized wireless infrastructure spending. SBA Communications CEO Jeffrey Stoops reminded the audience that as a group the U.S. carriers spent billions of dollars on AWS spectrum last year, which leaves less capital available for network investment.

Most tower work now involves amendments rather than new builds, meaning carriers are updating sites by adding new antennas or moving radios to the tower tops. The executives foresee more amendments on the horizon as carriers deploy larger antennas to support massive multiple-input/multiple-output antenna technology and eventually the 600 megahertz broadcast spectrum that is being repurposed for wireless. Steven Marshall, president of American Tower’s U.S division, added that more amendments will be necessary as carriers move to centralize base stations and use fiber to connect tower equipment to “base station hotels.”

Fiber is a priority for the U.S. tower companies, but their approaches to fiber vary. Crown Castle has been investing heavily, and CEO Ben Moreland said the company now owns 17,000 miles of fiber in the U.S. Moreland described fiber as “the horizontal tower,” meaning it can be leased to more than one carrier just as towers can be. Stoops said SBA Communications also values fiber as an asset, but American Tower’s Marshall noted that his company’s investment in fiber has been limited to its outdoor distributed antenna systems.

American Tower has more indoor distributed antenna systems than its competitors, and leases space on those systems to multiple carriers. SBA Communications is also focusing on indoor DAS, having sold its stake in outdoor DAS specialist ExteNet Systems to Digital Bridge Holdings, which also owns a controlling interest in Vertical Bridge.

Crown Castle has deployed more outdoor small cells than any of the other tower companies, and is now reporting small cell results separately from the results of its tower operations. Moreland said the deployment process remains challenging because there is no standard regulatory framework and Crown must negotiate one by one with neighborhoods, municipalities and state governments.

Vertical Bridge CEO Alex Gellman described the small cell opportunity as a way for carriers to use spectrum more efficiently. He expects carriers to start looking at network hot spots in a very granular way, targeting not just city blocks but specific buildings and even floors within buildings as areas that need more capacity.

Adelstein wrapped up the discussion by asking each panelist to offer advice to the audience. Crown Castle’s Moreland counseled patience, saying his company had never bought a single tower it regretted in the end. Marshall joked that the best advice he could offer anyone would be to “sell all your towers to American Tower,” and Gellman offered advice for the future: “Fasten your seatbelts,” he said. “The next 15 years will be nothing like the last.”

Source: MARTHA DEGRASS (Journalist At RCR Wireless)

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