The Sprint/T-Mobile merger isn’t dampening carrier spending on networks

Keynote addresses by some of the nation's largest tower companies drew crowds at the WIA's Connect (X) show. (Mike Dano/FierceWireless)

CHARLOTTE, N.C.—If their marriage is approved, Sprint and T-Mobile eventually plan to merge their networks and decommission thousands of towers. But that transaction hasn’t closed yet—and in the meantime, Sprint, T-Mobile and the rest of the nation’s carriers are moving full steam ahead with their 4G and 5G network build-outs.

“Perhaps most importantly, commentary from Tower companies indicated that the pace of activity from Sprint and T-Mobile has not slowed, despite their proposed merger announcement last month (this mirrors public commentary from both carriers),” wrote the Wall Street analysts at Deutsche Bank in a research note following the close of the WIA’s Connect (X) trade show here. “For Sprint, we believe activity remains focused on extending 2.5GHz deployments across its full portfolio, with incremental spend aimed at both newer macro sites as well as small cells (builds it would need with or without a TMUS merger, in our view). For T-Mobile, we believe spending priorities include 600MHz deployments and additional capacity enhancements via small cells (again, both items we would anticipate with or without a Sprint merger).”

Not surprisingly, tower company executives largely agreed that the proposed merger of Sprint and T-Mobile wouldn’t immediately affect their businesses. American Tower’s Rich Rossi said that the merger, at least in its first several years, “could create an environment that is net neutral,” at least in terms of overall industry spending on the construction of wireless networks.

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T-Mobile and Sprint today operate a total of 110,000 towers. If the merger is approved, the companies plan to shutter 35,000 towers and build 10,000 new towers, resulting in the end ownership of a total of 85,000 towers. Concurrently, the companies said they would increase the number of small cells they operate from a combined 10,000 today to a combined 50,000 over the coming years if the transaction is approved.

“It will almost be irrelevant how many carriers we have” in the U.S. market, argued Jay Brown, president and CEO of Crown Castle. He said that carrier spending on towers is ultimately driven by mobile customers’ usage of data, which he predicated will continue to rise as industrial wireless applications and IoT services catch fire.

Indeed, comments across the network-construction industry were mostly positive here this week (the WIA’s trade show mostly targets tower companies and other construction firms involved in the actual, physical construction of wireless networks).

“In our view, this is one of the best conferences of the year for communications infrastructure industry, and this year didn’t disappoint,” wrote the Wall Street analysts at Wells Fargo in their own note from the show. “We attended each of the group meetings hosted by the 3 public towercos, and also hosted a series of meetings with key industry players in parallel to the conference. We would characterize the overall tone of the conference as quite positive vs. the prior year when there remained many unknowns.”

Most analysts agreed that AT&T and Verizon would continue to spend on building out their networks.

“AT&T’s FirstNet build is expected to drive a multi-year build/amendment cycle as it deploys several new frequencies (700MHz, AWS-3, WCS), with revenue contribution ramping into 2019,” wrote the Deutsche Bank analysts. “Verizon, perhaps the most consistent among the group, remains active with both LTE densification as well as early 5G deployments.”

Another noteworthy theme to arise from this week’s WIA is that carriers are continuing to focus on macro tower build-outs—a noteworthy position considering that some had expected wireless network operators to shift their focus to small cells and closer-to-the-customer densification work at the expense of costly tower upgrades.

“Small cells and towers are not mutually exclusive and the carriers all agree that macro towers remain the cheapest, most cost effective means of deploying spectrum,” wrote the analysts at Wall Street firm Jefferies in their note from WIA. “Based on conversations, questions remain around small cell returns, though the addressable market seems massive.”

Those observations dovetail with comments from executives for some of the largest tower companies in the United States. “We don’t view small cells as a substitution of the macro sites,” agreed Crown Castle’s Brown, though he noted that the ultimate small cell opportunity could dwarf the macro tower opportunity.

Brown’s comments aren’t surprising though, considering Crown Castle has made a serious bet on the future of small cells, having invested billions of dollars buying fiber connections for the devices.

Other tower company executives offered more tepid views on small cells.

“Macro [towers] are going to be a critical part of 5G going forward,” explained Jeffrey Stoops, CEO of SBA Communications. He said that small cells won’t cannibalize the macro tower business, and that SBA continues to plan to “almost exclusively” focus on macro cell towers.

American Tower’s Rossi said the carrier has had a “tough time” finding a small cell model that works—one in which the company can sell the same small cell site to multiple carriers, as it currently does with its macro tower business. But he said American Tower is investing in small cell technologies, and he pointed in part to the company’s partnership with Philips Lighting, which involves a street light that has a small cell hidden inside, as an example.