Lightower sees demand for turnkey small cell services, finds Fibertech bolstered its capabilities

Wireless operators may still be in the planning and early implementation of small cells, but Lightower is seeing these carriers asking for more turnkey installation and support for the radios.

Under its small cell program, Lightower can offer site acquisition, power acquisition, installing small cell radios and then remote hands monitoring of the radios after they are installed.

While Lightower is selling more dark and lit fiber to wireless operators, Lightower CTO Phil Olivero told FierceInstaller that the desire amongst its wireless customer base for turnkey services is equally as high.

"We'll certainly sell dark fiber for small cells, but the carriers there are looking for more of a turnkey site acquisition, power acquisition and installation of small cell they give to us and provide remote hands afterwards if their radio breaks," Olivero said.

Regardless of the type of solution that they choose, Lightower wants to be part of what it sees as a growing opportunity as more large wireless operators like AT&T (NYSE: T), Sprint (NYSE: S) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ) build out small cells to increase coverage of their wireless networks.

Verizon made a $70 million network investment in the San Francisco Bay Area and Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. leading up to Super Bowl 50, for example. Ultimately, the wireless operator plans to deploy 400 small cells from San Francisco to San Jose.

"Small cells are a growing opportunity and it's one that will grow by leaps and bounds in the next few years," Olivero said. "It's something we want to make sure we help the wireless carriers get good at."

Like other fiber-centric providers, Lightower has found success in delivering fiber-based lit and dark fiber services across its territory in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest.

Within its regions, it provides service to over 5,000 wireless towers, 100 Mobile Switching Centers (MSCs), 500 COs, and telco hotels, and over 250 data centers.

Despite the promise of small cells and the size of the installation, Lightower notes that these deployments are no less complex or less expensive than a traditional macro cell deployment. Besides the cost of the radios, wireless operators still have to acquire permits to access local utility poles or get permission to access the rooftop of a building.   

"Small cells by definition are smaller and are trying to serve a smaller area yet most of the costs for deploying are the same," Olivero said. "Even though the expectation is they are serving a smaller area the costs should be smaller for site acquisition, but the reality of bringing fiber to a location, setting a pole, or getting permits to place a radio on the side of a building or a pole is similar to the costs you see on the macro side."

Olivero added that as interest in small cells have rose, "we are working with the wireless carriers to work through that business case to help find a solution to deploy these in large numbers and we're getting there."

What's also helping Lightower hone its small cell installation skills is its acquisition of Fibertech. Lightower now has a total of over 30,000 route miles of fiber and nearly 5,000 wireless towers. 

Fibertech enabled Lightower to gain further reach into secondary markets such as Rochester, NY and Cleveland, complementing its focus on larger cities such as Chicago and the New York City metro.

"We had slightly different philosophies in terms of what markets to build in and expand into," Olivero said. "We have some Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, but there's a lot of focus on New York and Washington, D.C. and the Fibertech focus was Syracuse, Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburgh so the Lightower/Fibertech combination helps a little bit in terms of density in any given market, but in general it was we could get to more markets."

But gaining fiber in other areas to target more fiber to the tower opportunities was only one benefit of the deal. Fibertech also was further along in deploying fiber and providing other services for small cells.

"From a small cell perspective, Fibertech clearly had done more work than Lightower in those smaller markets with slightly lower costs and they could actually make that business case work sooner than we could in some of the markets we were operating in," Olivero said. "I think we now have more small cell expertise and experience than we had prior to the Fibertech deal."

Olivero said that Lightower has been able to take Fibertech's experience to "look at opportunities in the legacy Lightower footprint for the same types of deals."

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