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Carrier-Neutral Network Operators: 4Q21 Market Review - 45 CNNOs Across the Globe, Including 10 Focused Primarily on Bandwidth/Fiber Infrastructure, 15 Data Center Specialists, and 20 Tower CNNOs -

The "Carrier-Neutral Network Operators: 4Q21 Market Review" report has been added to's offering.

This report tracks 45 CNNOs across the globe, including 10 focused primarily on bandwidth/fiber infrastructure, 15 data center specialists, and 20 tower CNNOs. The CNNOs in this study have all been publicly held entities and reported audited financials at some point in the 2011-21 timeframe; some are now private or have been acquired by other CNNOs.

CNNOs play an important role in the communications market. They sell independent, carrier-neutral access to network infrastructure, including the mobile towers, data centers, and bandwidth/fiber assets. In 2021, CNNOs accounted for $89.2 billion (B) in revenues (+13% YoY), $40.8B in M&A spending (+256%), $30.7B in Capex (flat vs 2020), and $239.1B in net property, plant and equipment (net PP&E; +4% YoY). They owned and operated 1,062 data centers, 2.98 million cell towers, and nearly 800K route miles of fiber. CNNOs employed just over 102,000 people at year-end 2021, about the same as in 2020.

The CNNO market has grown significantly over the last decade. Between 2011 and 2021, most key financial metrics have risen at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of between 15-20%: revenues, +16.4%; Capex, 17.9%; total debt, 18.9%; and, net PP&E, 17.8%. There are two primary reasons for this rapid, sustained growth. First, telcos are moving to (more) asset-light operating models and have spun off large portions of their passive infrastructure.

This continues, and CNNOs are also expanding their networks organically. Second, webscale operators offering cloud services have grown rapidly and cannot build their entire network alone. They rent both data center and bandwidth resources from CNNOs. Secondary drivers for CNNO growth include low-interest rates enabling debt-financed expansion (M&A and Capex); the tax advantages of the real estate investment trust (REIT) operating model; and, the growth of the asset pool managed by private equity, an important source of funding for CNNOs.

The publisher simplifies the CNNO market into segments based upon their primary investment focus: towers, data centers, and fiber/bandwidth. However, many CNNOs own multiple types of infrastructure, and this cross-ownership is growing as companies leverage benefits from economies of scope. An influx of investment from asset management funds is also pushing CNNOs towards integrated business models.

PE firms are acquiring assets across multiple infra types, and blending them into new, more converged entities. Asset managers with stakes in multiple types of CNNOs include Ardian, Brookfield, Carlyle, Cordiant, EQT, GI Partners, KKR, PAG Real Estate, TPG, and Triple Point. Colony Capital's creation, DigitalBridge, is probably the most mature example of this approach, and illustrative of where the CNNO market is headed. American Tower's 2021 acquisition of a major data center specialist, CoreSite Realty, is another illustration.

Key findings from this 4Q21 Market Review include:

  • Revenues: In 2021, global CNNO revenues rose by 13% from 2020 to $89.2 billion (B). That's a bit slower than the 2011-21 CAGR of 16% but an improvement on 2020's 8% growth. All three segments improved growth in 2021 v. the COVID-plagued 2020, but growth in the data center market was strongest: up 19%, to $19.1B.
  • Capex: CNNO Capex held steady in 2021 at $30.7B (+0.3% YoY), as key players focused on M&A. The top three capex spenders were China Tower, Equinix, and Digital Realty, which accounted for about one-third of the total CNNO Capex.
  • M&A spending: CNNOs often spend more on M&A than Capex, and this was the case in 2021: CAPEX of $30.7B was outpaced by $40.7B on M&A. Tower CNNOs spent by far the most on M&A in 2021. The biggest individual spenders were American Tower (CoreSite, Telxius, DataSite) and Cellnex (Altice Tower, Arqiva, CK Hutch, Hivory). In the data center segment, China-based GDS spent by far the most on M&A in 2021.
  • Employees: CNNOs employ about 102K people, unchanged from 2021. The sector has a relatively high revenue per employee rate (~$900K in 2021), and free cash flow per employee has been rising for several years.
  • Datacenter infra: The number of data centers operated by CNNOs (of ALL types) tracked in this study ended 2021 at 1,062, up from 987 in 2020, and just 455 in 2011; net rentable footprint per data center has been climbing since 2017.
  • Bandwidth infra: CNNOs operate just under 800K route miles of fiber, used mainly for wholesale or similar services; roughly 18% was owned by companies outside the bandwidth segment, notably US-based Crown Castle and the Indonesia towers.
  • Tower infra: CNNOs operate nearly 2.98 million towers, including China Tower. Excluding China, the figure was ~946 thousand (K) in 2021, from about 863K in 2020 and just over 200K in 2011. Focusing on the market ex-China, prior to 2021, the average tenancy ratio had been falling since 2011, but the tenancy ratio improved somewhat in 2021, to slightly above 1.7 tenants per (occupied) tower
  • CNNO market in context: CNNOs is one of three operator segments tracked at MTN Consulting, along with Telco and Webscale. The CNNO market plays a vital role in the development of these other two sectors. It remains relatively small, though. In 2021, Capex spending by telcos and webscalers totaled $326 billion and $175 billion, respectively. That's roughly 11x and 6x the level of Capex recorded by CNNOs in 2021. With all the private investment into CNNOs in recent years, though, and ongoing needs from telcos to rely more on third parties for their network operations, there are strong signs that the CNNO market will continue to bridge this gap.

Companies Mentioned

  • 21Vianet
  • American Tower
  • Arqiva
  • Balitower
  • Bharti Infratel
  • Cellnex
  • China Tower
  • ChinData
  • Chorus Limited
  • Cogent
  • CoreSite Realty
  • Crown Castle
  • CyrusOne
  • Cyxtera
  • Digital Realty
  • DuPont Fabros
  • EI Towers
  • Equinix
  • GDS Data Centers
  • GTL Infrastructure
  • GTT Communications
  • IHS Towers
  • Internap
  • Interxion
  • Inti Bangun Sejahtera
  • Inwit
  • Keppel DC REIT
  • Level 3
  • Lumos
  • NBN Australia
  • QTS Realty
  • Sarana Menara Nusantara
  • SBA Communications
  • Solusi Tunas Pratama
  • Summit Digitel
  • Sunevision
  • Superloop
  • Switch
  • TDF Infrastructure/Arcus
  • Telesites
  • Telxius/Telefonica
  • Tower Bersama Infrastructure
  • Uniti Group
  • Zayo

For more information about this report visit


Laura Wood, Senior Press Manager

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