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American Tower (NYSE: AMT) leases over 27,000 cell phone towers to wireless service providers, including Verizon Communications (VZ), Sprint Nextel (S) and AT&T (T). It operates over 20,000 wireless towers in the U.S. and has an additional 7,000 in Mexico, Brazil, and India.[1] With a US market share over 40%, the company is one of the largest wireless tower operators in the country, just behind leader Crown Castle International (CCI).

Cell phone towers derive revenue from multiple tenants who use the infrastructure simultaneously. Because of the regulatory difficulty of building new towers (at least domestically), growth is largely driven by adding tenants to existing towers. This gives the tower companies significant barriers to entry and strong cash flow from incremental business at each tower.

American Tower depends primarily on the success of the wireless communications business, which has grown rapidly since the early 2000's. As of June 2009, there were 277 million cell phone subscribers in the United States, 78 million in Mexico, 160 million in Brazil, and 427 million in India.[2] The large international subscribers represent a large growth opportunity for AMT, as the US wireless market is now mature with a penetration of over 90%.

It is hard to differentiate in the cell tower industry because everyone is doing essentially the same thing. However, American Tower is far more profitable than its competitors. American Tower has decided to sacrifice tower growth for tower profitability by maximizing its tenant per tower ratio and keeping their actual tower growth essentially flat.[3] This strategy produced an operating margin of 23.54%, in comparison to SBA Communications and Crown Castle who had operating margins of 1.73% and 7.96% respectively.

Company Overview

American Tower has over 20,000 wireless towers in the U.S. and 2,800 in Mexico and Brazil. The company leases antenna space to wireless service providers, including Verizon Communications (VZ), Sprint Nextel (S) and AT&T (T). Each tower antenna can derive revenue from multiple tenants who use the infrastructure simultaneously.

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Trends and Drivers

The US cell phone market

Since the mid 2000's, cell phone usage in the United States, the company's most important market, has increased substantially. Increased cell phone usage means greater antenna and infrastructure usage for the company, which drives revenue. Given the attractive per tower economics of new business (most new business flows directly to the bottom line), the company has enjoyed significant growth and improved margins. The United States still lags other developed countries' cell phone saturation, leaving room for growth, but as the market continues to mature quickly, the company must seek growth abroad.

Consolidation and Infrastructure Sharing of Wireless Carriers

In recent years, companies such as Cingular and AT&T (T) and Sprint and Nextel have merged, evidence of increased consolidation among wireless carriers. This consolidation, as well as arrangements to share networks, has led to increased customer bargaining power and lower demand for total antenna usage. This is largely due to the fact that the companies' existing networks and their new, combined networks overlap or are being rationalized as expansion plans converge. The continued elimination of these duplications will lower revenue per tower, hurting margins and cash flow generation.

Concentration of Wireless Customer

Around 64% of the company's business comes from just 5 customers, including Sprint Nextel (S) (21%), Cingular (20%), and Verizon Communications (VZ) (10%). Because the company generally signs long-term, 5-10 year lease contracts with these companies, any unwillingness or inability to pay future obligations or any serious disputes with one of these companies can have a materially adverse affect on the business.

Government Regulation

Heavy FCC & Federal Aviation Administration regulation governs the construction and maintenance of existing towers. Each proposed new tower must be approved subject to height and weight requirements, location, environmental impact, and various other factors. Furthermore, each existing tower is inspected and expected to meet stringent standards and maintenance requirements, which may necessitate capital expenditures and fees related to upkeep and compliance. While no laws to date limit the construction of new towers, it has become increasingly hard to build new towers, so each of the major three tower companies enjoy regulatory barriers to entry and scale that cannot easily be duplicated by new entrants.

Competition and Market Share

After recent consolidation in the industry, domestic competition between wireless infrastructure rental companies has become relatively consolidated among three major players: American Towers, Crown Castle International (CCI), and SBA Communications (SBAC). American Tower is the largest by revenue and market share, but following CCI's 2007 merger with Global Signal, Inc., the company is neck-and-neck in terms of number of towers. Below is a comparison of relevant operating metrics.

All of these companies, however, also compete against wireless carriers who choose to maintain their own networks and build their own infrastructure. Many of the wireless carriers also draw revenue from their towers. For example, AT&T Mobility owns and operates at least 8,500 towers and has established a separate division within the company to manage the tenant leasing business. T-Mobile and Verizon have similar tower leasing divisions. The leased tower segment of the above tower owners comprises around 55,000 of the total 200,000 towers across the country.


  1. AMT 10-K 2009 Item 1 Pg. 1
  2. AMT 10-K 2009 Item 1 Pg. 2
  3. [www.morningstar.com Morningstar]
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