AT&T said it continues to negotiate with cell tower owners in order to reduce spending on tower space. And the company is boasting about the results its hardball negotiating tactics are generating.
Specifically, the company appears to have terminated more than 600 agreements with tower owners during 2019 in pursuit of cheaper tower fees.
"We are constantly evaluating our current tower leases for both efficiency and service as part of a long-term 'build to relocate' strategy we began implementing in 2017," the operator said in a statement in response to questions from Light Reading. "As we find ways to reduce costs, we try to negotiate with owners but may determine that relocating to a newer nearby tower makes the most economic sense. We've already completed hundreds of these relocations, which help us keep costs down while ensuring our customers get the service they expect from us."
The issue came to light recently via Ken Schmidt of cell tower consultation company Steel in the Air. Schmidt published a letter he said was from AT&T asking an unnamed cell tower owner to renegotiate rental rates. "AT&T has terminated over 630 sites for economic and operational reasons," the company stated in the letter – a tacit threat that it could walk away from the deal if necessary.
AT&T officials declined to comment directly on Schmidt's post, but executives familiar with the matter suggested to Light Reading that the total number of sites the operator relocated during 2019 was more than the 630 referenced in the letter.
The scope of AT&T's build to relocate program is difficult to ascertain; the company does not provide hard figures on the number of towers it has relocated or the money it has spent renting space on cell towers.
However, AT&T is clearly interested in reducing its overall expenses. After all, AT&T's management said recently they implemented a cost-cutting program that the operator hopes will trim $6 billion from its budget by 2023.
AT&T's build to relocate program – and similar efforts by other wireless network operators – has been a major topic of conversation within the tower industry. Established incumbents view the efforts as a threat to their business models, while upstarts in the space see them as a way to get their foot in the door with big network operators. However, build to relocate projects are often hampered by local regulations designed to prevent the construction of unnecessary or redundant towers.
Indeed, the build to relocate trend did not generate much discussion during this year's Connect (X) trade show by the Wireless Infrastructure Association, the primary trade group for the US cell tower industry. Instead, executives discussed other pressing matters including new FCC rules around tower upgrades, the COVID-19 pandemic, the merger between Sprint and T-Mobile, 5G, Dish Network's 5G ambitions, among others.