Towers in the fog photo

Isn’t it incredible that the US cell tower market, which represents a combined market capitalisation of more than $80bn, is so poorly documented in terms of basic facts such as the number of towers in the country? When asked the question by a client recently, we thought it would be a quick process to find the answer. How wrong were we! Some analysts believed it was c. 100,000 while one of so-called research website was putting forward the number of 500,000: it’s pretty incredible that estimates should be in a range of 1:5 in such a well-developed market as the US!

The challenges of market research
There are, to be fair, many good reasons as to why this figure is hard to get. If you wanted to find out more about cell towers in the country, you would probably consult the FCC’s or the FAA’s databases due to the fact that tower operators have to register their high towers with both regulators. The only problems are that the user interface of these databases is quite poor and doesn’t really provide a consolidated view of the US market. Individual operators’ databases provide information on their sites only – understandably. As to market research, we’ve been looking for reports on the sector: no disrespect but there aren’t any of any substance.

At last, some progress!
Faced with the issue, we thought we had to try to solve it by ourselves, so we spent a long time collecting data, checking it, correcting it and updating it, and ultimately we put together a pretty unique database that anyone with an interest in the cell tower market can access on www.towerlocation.com. Key information on all cell sites including their location, the type and height of the towers, the name of their operators and their active / non-active status is now available. The website gives users the ability to search towers by state, by city, by operator and even by height and visualize the information in tables, maps and graphs which they can print or save as needed.

So what do we know now?
At long last, we’re now able to confirm that there are approximately 268,000 cell phone sites (towers and roof-tops) in the US. 248,000 of these sites are actually active, a clear sign that the cell tower industry is thriving. The largest operators are Crown Castle, American Tower and SBA Communications with shares of the tower market of respectively 34%, 20% and 7% based on number of towers. Surprisingly the Big 4 cell phone operators, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, together operate only 11% of the sites. What’s interesting is that the remaining 28% of the market is still in the hands of businesses whose core business is not wireless telephony; they include radio / TV stations, cities, state or federal agencies and private individuals of course. In summary there’s still significant scope for market consolidation!

Tower specs
We now also know how the US tower portfolio breaks down by type of site. The most prevalent tower structure in the US market is the guyed: it accounts for 42% of the total. The 2nd most prevalent type of sites are rooftops with 24%, followed by monopole towers (13%) and self-supported towers (10%). DAS systems are still a long way behind at 3%. It’ll be interesting to see how these figures evolve, especially in the light of the development of the small cell market.