Crown Castle’s Brown: Owning fiber is fundamental to delivering small cell solutions

Crown Castle says that its ongoing investment in fiber networks ensures that it will have the network capacity needed to address small cells and other wholesale and retail network service opportunities.

Over the past year, Crown Castle has been building up its arsenal of fiber holdings by acquiring three fiber providers: FiberNet, Wilcon and Lightower.

Out of this group, Lightower is the most significant as that deal gave Crown Castle about 32,000 route miles of fiber located primarily in metro markets in the Northeast, including Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

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Jay Brown, CEO of Crown Castle, told investors during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call that these acquisitions enable it to effectively address markets where it is seeing customers focus their builds.

Crown Castle CEO Jay Brown (Crown Castle)
Jay Brown

“In 2017, we strengthened our leadership position with the acquisitions of FiberNet, Wilcon and Lightower that operate in top U.S. markets where we see the greatest demand for network investment by our customers,” said Brown during the earnings call, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript. “These investments reflect our strong belief that owning fiber is fundamental to delivering small cell solutions to our customers in a period of significantly increasing cell site densification. Our belief is informed by our significant experience building 50,000 small cell nodes, which is why we now own approximately 60,000 route miles of fiber, including in 23 of the top 25 markets in the U.S.”

Brown added that the acquisitions and focusing its capital on expanding its fiber network will position the company well for 2018 and beyond.

“We believe these capital allocation decisions will drive significant long-term growth in our dividend per share as we add small cell and fiber solutions customers to these high-capacity metro fiber assets,” Brown said.

While Crown Castle has positioned itself as a key wholesale fiber player to address all four of the wireless operators'—AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile—small cell needs, the service provider also says operators could leverage fiber for other uses. Service providers like Sprint, which has revamped its wireline enterprise business, could be candidates to leverage fiber from Crown Castle or another dark fiber provider to fuel access to businesses.

“I would say across all four of the operators, we're seeing them use the asset in multiple different ways, so not just for small cells but, as we've talked about, some of the other offerings that we have on the fiber solutions side,” Brown said. “Those are products that they're interested in and are using in various ways.”

At the same time, Crown Castle is aware that other wireless operators like Verizon may prefer to go their own way by building out their own fiber network or purchasing other assets.

Verizon told investors during its fourth-quarter earnings call that building its own fiber is the best way to align new networks with its wireless and business services strategy. Besides purchasing XO Communications and some of WOW!’s Chicago fiber assets, it also signed purchase agreements with Corning to deploy 12.5 million miles of fiber.

While not mentioning Verizon directly, Brown said that not only will its service provider customers take various approaches to procuring fiber, but it also will compete with other dark fiber players for small cell backhaul.

“We're going to see carriers invest and self-perform, and we'll probably have other infrastructure providers come into the market and provide solutions in places where we don't,” Brown said. “There's multiple carriers in the market talking about how big the opportunity here is for small cells, and the need for fiber is core to that.”