Executives Assess COVID’s Effect on Tower Builds

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The tower and wireless infrastructure industries are in a very good place, considering what’s going on nationally with the economy during the coronavirus pandemic, executives said Wednesday. However, supply chain challenges are among new problems, said experts during the virtual Wireless West “Tower Hour.”

APC Towers CEO Danny Agresta said the pandemic has changed his daily questions from: “Where’s the steel? Do we have a permit yet?” to, asking customers if they can access his company’s platforms so project milestones aren’t missed.

Agresta says his company keeps in touch with NATE about what’s going on with crews. Citing the association’s recent member survey, Agresta said: “It’s clear contractors have concerns” regarding travel, lodging, and food. “I don’t know if that will still be true in a month or three months from now.” He said: “We’ve heard rumblings there [are] supply chain problems.”  

Now, APC is working through those issues by finding contractors who live relatively close to a site and don’t need to stay overnight. They may need to be able to easily travel there for 30 straight days, for example.

Vertical Bridge CEO and Cofounder Alex Gellman said there’s a slowdown in obtaining some permitting approvals. Federal permitting is online and virtual, so it’s not a problem, but state and county approvals have lagged in some areas, he noted. However, “if the light switch goes back on in most of the country by summer, I think we can all catch up.”

Agresta agreed, and said his company has figured out how to work with mobile notaries since it’s hard to find a notary public that’s open in a small market.

Beyond 2020, site activity should drive an increase in investment, Gellman predicts. Concerning carrier network spend, he believes the pendulum will swing back to macro towers in the coming years. He notes that macro, in-building and small cells all compete for limited carrier budgets. Macro towers “are clearly more efficient” to bridge the digital divide. As 5G becomes “more emergent” the spend will shift more towards small cells.

The carriers have no budget for in-building wireless deployment, according to Gellman. “Venues like casinos and stadiums really never penetrated to neutral host platforms and shared carrier space.” While there’s talk about landlords paying for deployment, he doubts that will happen. “This crisis shows they have significant pain,” he explained, adding that consumers will be less willing to go to stores in the future. Those decisions will affect real estate and slowdown that building sector.

Where will spending increase? In wireless, he believes. Discussing the effects of the T-Mobile-Sprint merger, Gellman said T-Mobile is predominantly focused on wireless network deployment. “The merger will force AT&T and Verizon to spend more money on wireless than they otherwise would have,” he said.  

Agresta sees another opportunity in macro builds from T-Mobile. That will put pressure on AT&T to keep up with their own new builds and co-locations, he said. Verizon meanwhile, “is sticking to their guns with small cells, building a bridge between the rural and urban divide.”

Figuring out where Dish builds stand after the merger is tricky, the executives agreed. They pointed out Dish agreed to certain buildout timelines to get the deal completed. Agresta said: “One vision is they won’t build macro towers, but will co-locate on 15,000 sites. With their scale, they will deploy quickly.” Cautioning that he can’t predict the future, Agresta acknowledged he can see a scenario where supply chain issues slow that down.

“They have a timeline to meet. I don’t know if they’ll get [government] relief. We should be busy with them in 2020 and 2021,” Agresta said.

Gellman cited Dish’s MVNO agreement with T-Mobile and  a commitment to cover populations by 2023. He doesn’t believe the FCC would grant Dish an extension for COVID-19. “I don’t think this will be that disruptive to their supply chain” when the deployment deadline is three years away, he said.  

by Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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