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5G

Crown Castle: It was worth the wait

"Following a period of building excitement and anticipation, we have seen a significant increase in activity as our customers have started to upgrade their networks to 5G at scale," said CEO Jay Brown during Crown Castle's quarterly earnings conference call this week, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript.

As a result, Crown Castle lifted its 2021 expectations for site rental revenues; adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA); and adjusted funds from operations (AFFO).

The results come less than a year after activist hedge-fund Elliot Management targeted Crown Castle's fiber and small cell business.

Analysts generally agreed that Crown Castle's quarterly results this week represent the fulfillment of the company's promises around 5G, including its investments into fiber and small cells.

"Across the tower space, 2021 appears as though it will be broadly similar to 2020 from a domestic leasing perspective. Data points have been accumulating to support the idea that growth should exit 2021 at a better rate and 2022 is setting up well for a more durable improvement, however. And Crown Castle may be in a position to lead the way," wrote the financial analysts at MoffettNathanson in a note to investors following the release of Crown Castle's earnings. "This bodes well for growth in coming periods."

Others agreed.

"We view the guidance raise along with management commentary around increasing activity positively, but highlight organic growth guidance already assumed this," wrote the financial analysts with Cowen after the release of Crown Castle's results. "We continue to have a positive view of Crown Castle including its fiber/small cell strategy."

Crown Castle's main 5G story revolves around operators' deployment of C-band spectrum licenses. Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T collectively have agreed to pay almost $90 billion for the licenses, and billions more putting them to use.

That spending crystalized earlier this month when Verizon – the nation's biggest C-band spectrum winner – announced new tower agreements with Crown Castle and SBA Communications. Those agreements covered both macro towers and small cells.

Overall, the financial analysts at New Street Research predicted that C-band deployments by all the nation's carriers will raise Crown Castle's organic revenue growth by around 0.7% in 2022 and by 1.4% in 2023.

Crown Castle's Brown argued the company's results essentially validate his long-term strategy. That strategy has revolved around macro cell towers – like all of the company's rivals, such as American Tower and SBA Communications – but has also included buying fiber networks and building small cells. American Tower and SBA have avoided the fiber and small cell market, preferring instead to expand into international markets.

"One of our core principles of our strategy is to remain US-only, because we believe it represents the best market for wireless infrastructure ownership since it has the most attractive growth profile and the lowest risk. And we believe this dynamic of higher growth and lower risk will continue into the future, which is why we expect our US-based strategy to drive significant returns for our shareholders," Brown explained. "The demand for our shared infrastructure offering across towers, small cells and fiber is tied to the robust demand for mobile data in the US, which continues to increase by more than 30% annually."

Importantly, Brown largely maintained Crown Castle's outlook on small cells despite a slowdown in that business following T-Mobile's decision to cancel thousands of small cells ordered by Sprint prior to T-Mobile's acquisition of the company.

Brown said Crown Castle still expects to reach around 15% growth in small cells this year. He added that the company continues to anticipate demand "well in excess" of present levels, and that it will continue building around 10,000 new small cells per year. The company currently operates around 80,000 small cells.

"Our view of the number of small cells that is going to be needed in the market aligns pretty closely with a number of the comments that the carriers have made, where they have indicated there is going to be more than a million small cells in the US," Brown said.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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