Diminishing Outlook for a DISH Spectrum Deal As Small Cell Deployments Gain Momentum, by David Dixon, FBR

Attribution: This blog post was written by David Dixon of FBR and edited by Alan J Weissberger

Executive Summary:

Competition is dampening returns, but VZ’s strategy is on track. Though behind on IoT, densification is helping to address 75% YOY data traffic growth; usage per customer should help augment revenue growth. Chicago and New York should benefit from the launch of unlicensed LTE in 2016 at relatively low cost, with AWS 3 spectrum utilized in 2017/2018. While DISH spectrum leasing provides a free option, VZ is also well positioned to leverage more low-cost capacity spectrum via 150 MHz of 3.5 MHz spectrum (70 MHz of priority access + 80 MHz of unlicensed spectrum).

The industry has rallied around the 3.5 GHz spectrum to build an effective ecosystem that should allow the spectrum to be put into use quickly. This, combined with refarming opportunities in the 850 MHz and 1.9,Ghz bands, has VZ well positioned on the spectrum front. We still think a DISH spectrum acquisition is unlikely, but a leasing agreement could be a useful Plan B, should VZ’s small cell strategy run into speed bumps.

Key Points:

■ 3Q15 earnings recap. Consolidated revenue of $33.2B (+5.0% YOY) was ahead of consensus’ $33.0B but below our $33.5B estimate, driven by a 5.4% YOY increase in wireless revenue, partially offset by a 2.3% YOY decline in wireline revenue. Consolidated EBITDA of $11.5B were below our Street-comparable estimate of $11.8B. Retail postpaid net adds were 1,289,000, with churn of 0.93% and a retail prepaid net loss of 80,000. The 3Q15 adjusted EPS of $1.04, after a $0.05 non-cash pension re-measurement adjustment, compared to our Street-comparable estimate of $1.02.

■ Divestitures and accounting changes drive lower EPS growth in 2016. Specifically: (1) Converting from a subsidized to installment wireless phone model increased earnings in 2015, as 100% of the equipment sale was recorded as revenue. However, 30% of the base is now not on subsidized pricing (expected to increase to 50% in 2016), normalizing the earnings impact); (2) divested Frontier properties are classified as discontinued operations, driving a $0.13–$0.14 EPS lift from discontinued depreciation expense; (3) a loss of higher-margin properties with stranded centralized costs, with some of the cost savings realized after the labor agreement; (4) losses for start-up businesses.

■ Estimate changes; lower price target. We lower our FY15 and FY16 estimates to account for divestitures, accounting impacts, and lower phone sales volume in 4Q (anniversary of iPhone 6 launch in 4Q14). FY15 revenue/EBITDA/ EPS estimates decline to $131.1B/$46.2B/$3.95, from $131.8B/$46.5B/$3.96; FY16 revenue/EBITDA/EPS estimates decline to $133.0B/$47.2B/$4.03, from $137.1B/$48.4B/$4.12.

Our Thoughts – Time Frames for Impact:

1. Aside from being well positioned on spectrum for the macro network, how what is the small cell opportunity as an alternative to more macro network spectrum going forward?

A change in the industry network engineering business model is underway toward using small cells on dedicated spectrum to manage more of the heavy lifting associated with data congestion. Verizon demonstrated this shift during the AWS3 auction: It modeled a lower-cost small cell network for Chicago and New York. We expect CEO Lowell McAdam to manage this shift from the top down to mitigate execution risk due to cultural resistance from legacy outdoor RF design engineers, whose roles are at risk as the macro network is de-emphasized.

Enablers include the advent of LTE, increased spectrum supply across multiple spectrum bands including LTE licensed, unlicensed (500 MHz of 5 GHz spectrum) and shared frequencies (150 MHz of 3.5 GHz spectrum), amid a fundamental FCC spectrum policy shift from exclusive spectrum rights to usage-based spectrum rights, which should dramatically increase LTE spectrum utilization (similarly to WIFI).

Previously, outdoor small cells co-channeled with the macro network proved challenging: While they can carry substantial load, they also destroy equivalent capacity on the macro network due to mis-coordination and interference, so the macro network carries less traffic but still looks fully loaded. AT&T discovered this in its St. Louis trials that, in part, steered it toward buying $20 billion of AWS3 spectrum.

However, the industry trend is toward LTE underlay networks, where small cells are put into other shared or unlicensed spectrum with supervision from and/or carrier aggregation with the macro network. It still requires good coordination across all cells for this to work; while Verizon initial proposals for 5 GHz are downlink only, we think uplink will also be used longer term because uplink needs more spectrum resources for a given throughput; we see higher uplink usage trends in the Asian enterprise segment and from Internet of Things (security cameras).

Time frame:12 to 18 Months

2. Does Verizon have sufficient spectrum depth to drive revenue growth longer term? Or does it need to aggressively acquire spectrum in future spectrum auctions or in the secondary market (DISH)?

The short answer is yes. Verizon carries 80% of data traffic on 40% of its spectrum portfolio; its combined nationwide CDMA and LTE spectrum depth is 115 MHz, ranging from 88 MHz (Denver) to 127 MHz (NYC). We expect AWS3 capacity spectrum to be deployed in 2017/18. Investors may not be crediting Verizon with potential to source more LTE spectrum from refarming of CDMA to LTE (22 MHz to 25 MHz) used today for CDMA data (22 MHz to 25 MHz).

Critically, network performance data show Verizon network close to the required performance threshold for a VoLTE-only service, suggesting there is additional refarming potential for the 850 MHz band (25 MHz) used today for CDMA voice and text. This band is likely to be transitioned in 5 MHz x 5 MHz LTE slivers to run parallel with the expected linear (voluntary) ramp, versus exponential (forced) ramp in VoLTE service.

More low-band spectrum is key for the surging IoT and M2M segments, which are proving to be more thirsty than “bursty.”

Time frame: 2 Years+