Analysts: AT&T poised to build out WCS spectrum, Sprint to announce network expansion plans

Analysts at Wall Street financial firm New Street Research said that AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) is preparing to begin building out a network running on its WCS spectrum licenses. The firm also said that AT&T likely will ramp up its spending on its network after several months of slower spending. Further, the firm said that Sprint (NYSE: S) is likely planning to announce a new network plan when the carrier reports its first-quarter results.

New Street analysts Spencer Kurn, Jonathan Chaplin and Vivek Stalam said this network activity, combined with T-Mobile US' (NYSE:TMUS) ongoing network buildout efforts, will create additional opportunities for tower companies like SBA Communications, Crown Castle and American Tower to make additional revenues.

The analysts noted that they had originally expected AT&T to begin deploying WCS spectrum for LTE service early this year, "but checks with the company suggest they are still in the planning phase. We remain confident, however, that AT&T will begin submitting applications to the tower companies and deploying WCS shortly." Assuming AT&T starts deploying WCS spectrum in the second quarter and ramps up that rollout throughout the rest of the year, they estimate it could add 0.6 to 0.8 percent growth for tower companies in the fourth quarter.

AT&T in 2012 acquired $600 million worth of more WCS spectrum from NextWave. The carrier had planned to use some of that spectrum to offer in-flight Wi-Fi services, but last year scrapped that plan.

New Street noted that AT&T paused its network spending during the FCC's recent AWS-3 spectrum auction "because the auction results would impact their network plans."

"We believe the slowdown due to the auction is temporary and activity will accelerate once AT&T forms new network plans," they wrote. "We believe the slowdown from Leap is just timing--it will result in slower 2015 growth, but will be offset by faster growth in outer years due to lower churn on Leap's sites."

The New Street analysts think AT&T has gone from adding around 750-1,000 sites per quarter in 2013 to around 500 new sites per quarter in the second half of last year. "Based on AT&T's guidance for Project VIP, we had expected AT&T to build more sites to ~70,000 by the end of 2015," they wrote. "We don't think this endpoint has changed, but it now appears that AT&T will repurpose sites they acquired from Leap (we think ~40%) to help reach their target instead of building sites themselves. While this does result in slower growth in 2015, we estimate that the impact is largely offset by lower churn on the Leap portfolio in outer years."

Meanwhile, the New Street analysts think Sprint will unveil a new network plan in the coming months. "We believe Sprint will unveil a new network plan when they report next quarter. We are not sure of the details yet, but we suspect that Sprint's network plan will have four components: 1) New coverage sites; 2) New sites in urban areas for density; 3) New small cells; and 4) Upgrading legacy CLWR 2.5GHz sites to CDMA. Further, we think Sprint may utilize some iDEN sites that they had previously labeled for decommissioning."

Indeed, FierceWireless reported in February that Sprint plans to significantly expand its LTE network by adding potentially up to 20,000 cell sites and repurposing existing sites, according a source familiar with Sprint's plans. 

As for T-Mobile, the carrier plans to expand coverage to an additional 15 million POPs with its 700 MHz A Block spectrum on top of its ongoing densification efforts. T-Mobile aims to get to 300 million covered LTE POPs by the end of the year.

"We believe this requires 1,000-1,500 new cell sites for coverage and 600 new cell sites for densification," the New Street analysts added." We estimate this will drive an acceleration of revenue growth and upside to guidance as the year progresses."

The New Street analysts think SBA is the best positioned for growth among the three main tower firms. "They are the most exposed to AT&T and should suffer the greatest impact from a slowdown at AT&T; however, this is already reflected in guidance and we think SBAC similarly stands to benefit the most from a reacceleration of activity and lower Leap churn on the back end," they wrote.

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