5G boosts results in US... for towercos, not telcos

The biggest takeaway from Q1 reporting season is that in this, the 5G rollout phase, the impetus remains with the tower providers rather than the mobile operators themselves.

Mary Lennighan

April 22, 2021

3 Min Read
telecoms radio towers

The biggest takeaway from Q1 reporting season is that in this, the 5G rollout phase, the impetus remains with the tower providers rather than the mobile operators themselves.

Crown Castle this week boosted its full-year outlook on the back of a strong set of first-quarter numbers that showed, amongst other things, that it is benefiting from 5G deployment in its home market.

The towers specialist’s site rental revenues – which account for well over 90% of turnover – came in at US$1.37 billion, up 5% on-year. Its net profit was lower, at $121 million, but adjusted EBITDA grew by 10% to $897 million.

“We are excited about the increasing level of activity we see in our business as our customers have begun to deploy 5G at scale,” the firm’s chief financial officer Dan Schlanger said, in a statement accompanying the results announcement. “We believe we are well positioned to support our growing number of customers by providing a comprehensive set of solutions across towers, small cells and fibre solutions, which are all necessary to build out 5G wireless networks.”

Earlier this month Verizon announced it had inked two new deals with Crown Castle and another of its existing towers partners, SBA Communications, to lease space for its C-band equipment and cut through some of the red tape to enable it to roll out that spectrum quickly.

“Looking forward, we believe we are in a great position to deliver on our long-term annual dividend growth target of 7% to 8% while at the same time making significant investments in our business that we believe will generate attractive long-term returns and support future growth,” Schlanger said. Ultimately, that’s why investors are so keen on the passive infrastructure market, but that’s another story.

This story concludes with Crown Castle boosting its full-year forecast across all metrics – it expects to generate $5.67 billion-$5.72 billion in site rental revenues this year and post a profit of north of a billion dollars and earnings in the $3.58 billion-$3.63 billion range – evidence, if any were needed, that 5G is proving something of a boon to the towers firms.

But that is not the end of the story, of course, because the businesses of the towers firms are intrinsically linked with those of their telco customers: the ones who are rolling out the 5G networks and – all being well – signing up the end users.

You could argue that the headline on Verizon’s first-quarter results announcement was a bit misleading. “Verizon reports strong start to 2021 as company accelerates 5G growth,” the company proudly declared. But a closer look at the figures shows that the two things – revenue uplift and 5G growth – might well be two separate animals at this stage.

Verizon’s operating revenue was up 4% year-on-year to $32.9 billion, buoyed by 4.8% growth in consumer revenues, themselves lifted by growth on the wireless side, which Verizon said came primarily from higher phone activations. That said, the telco surprised the market by posting a net loss of 225,000 wireless retail postpaid phone customers.

Now, it could be that Verizon is signing up 5G customers in their droves and its net losses are not a major concern. But it’s difficult to draw that conclusion when the telco does not disclose how many 5G customers it has. One assumes that if we were talking tens of millions, Verizon would be shouting about it.

For Verizon, accelerated 5G growth is in network rollout. The company is working hard to extend its 5G coverage and earlier this week formally kicked off the deployment of its C-band spectrum, using kit from Ericsson and Samsung, despite the fact the airwaves will not be cleared before the end of the year.

By this time next year we will know whether or not Verizon hit its target of deploying its C-band-based 5G Ultra Wideband service to 100 million people by March. But the more interesting statistic will be how much revenue it is making from 5G once the technology is more mass-market…and perhaps some customer numbers, please!

About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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