The 5G Tower Party Is Just Getting Started

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Reliable 5G signals will require a lot more cell towers. It might be a good time for investors to connect.

One of the ironies of the smartphone revolution has been how little the companies that built the 4G networks underpinning it benefited. While having to invest heavily in stronger signals, mobile operators have struggled to charge customers for downloading more data. Despite a recent bounce, stocks such as Verizon Communications in the U.S. and

Vodafone


VOD -0.26%

in Europe have massively underperformed their host stock markets over five years.

With little prospect that 5G will bring different dynamics, operators in Europe are raising funds by carving out the passive part of their networks—the towers on which gear is hung—for full or partial sales. Vodafone, which in 2014 raised funds for 4G by selling its stake in Verizon, this week expects to complete a minority initial public offering of its Vantage Towers unit at a market value in the region of $15 billion.

Vodafone already shares some towers with other operators, but wants to share more. The cost of providing connections drops if two or more carriers agree to hang gear on the same structure. Co-tenancies will become even more important as the 5G rollout, which is just starting in Europe, gathers pace. The new standard will require heavy investment, including a denser web of transmitters than 4G.

Such deals are a back-door path to industrial consolidation, which allows big cost savings in the mobile industry. While

T-Mobile

and Sprint were eventually allowed to merge in the U.S. under former President Donald Trump, the front-door route of network mergers remains barred by European regulators for fear that it leads to higher prices. They haven’t raised the same level of objections to tower deals.

Once listed, Vantage wants to buy more towers from operators that, like Vodafone, could use the cash. It is following the lead of

Cellnex Telecom,

Europe’s largest independent tower company. Since November, Cellnex has agreed to buy roughly $18 billion worth of towers from businesses controlled by Hong Kong billionaire

Li Ka-shing

and Franco-Israeli tycoon

Patrick Drahi.

Carriers have a strong financial motive to sell. Whereas stock pickers until recent months shunned network operators, they piled into Cellnex, leading to a huge valuation divide. Investors like infrastructure providers’ low-risk revenue profile—contracts with European operators are typically indexed to inflation—as well as the potential gains from tower-sharing. Vodafone’s move to spin off a minority of Vantage is a way to unlock value trapped in its business without giving up strategic control.

What You Need to Know About Investing

AT&T

and Verizon long ago started selling towers to specialist real-estate investment trusts such as American Tower and Crown Castle. 5G will bring growth to the U.S. sector too—possibly sooner given the slower pace of investment in Europe—but it has less scope for gains through deals. American Tower wants to join the party in Europe: In January, it agreed to pay $9.4 billion for a tower business controlled by Spanish giant

Telefónica.

Stock pickers also might benefit from looking across the Atlantic. European tower stocks have fallen in recent months, providing more reasonable entry points, and the Vantage IPO is pitched lower than some analysts once hoped. Yet the growth prospects remain, with consolidation well under way and digital infrastructure a priority for European governments. Towers are the most direct play on the 5G rollout investors are likely to find.

Write to Stephen Wilmot at stephen.wilmot@wsj.com

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