5G Cell Towers in 2024: Top Questions Answered

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It is impossible to watch any amount of TV without the seemingly constant bombardment of ads from AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, all pushing their 5G networks as the fastest, the best, and the most widely available or reliable. Each wireless carrier claims that their 5G towers are better than the others.  Each of them claims their 5G network is “more available” or “more reliable” although if you know what that means, you are further ahead than we are. We know the various claims made by each cell phone company can be confusing at times.

Below, we will provide some information about 5G and cell towers by answering some of the more frequent questions we hear. 

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What is a 5G Cell Tower?

A 5G cell tower is a communication tower that provides fifth generation (5G) services to people that work and live in the surrounding area.  Towers themselves aren’t 5G – it’s the equipment on the tower that makes it 5G with each set of equipment typically referred to as a macrocell. 5G equipment must meet specific standards issued by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) to qualify as “5G.”  For the most part, the frequencies used on cell towers for 5G are not significantly different from earlier generations of standards.  

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    What is a 5G Cell Tower?

    A 5G cell tower is a communication tower that provides fifth generation (5G) services to people that work and live in the surrounding area.  Towers themselves aren’t 5G – it’s the equipment on the tower that makes it 5G with each set of equipment typically referred to as a macrocell. 5G equipment must meet specific standards issued by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) to qualify as “5G.”  For the most part, the frequencies used on cell towers for 5G are not significantly different from earlier generations of standards.  

    Some people incorrectly equate small cells with 5G cell towers.  Small cells are antennas placed on utility poles or light poles and are rarely placed on a cell tower.  Small cells are smaller (25 cubic feet or less) and cover less area – typically less than ½ mile in diameter.  Small cells may be 4G or 5G, but they aren’t towers. Because small cells typically reside on shorter structures (50′ or less) and are deployed in suburban and urban areas, they are almost always closer to people and their residences than 5G cell towers.  This proximity makes them certainly more contentious.  It is important to note that the FCC has removed city and state authority to limit the placement of small cells in the public right of way except in situations where they impede traffic or cause unsafe conditions (not related to radio frequency waves).  

    In this article’s context, we will focus solely on 5G equipment on cell towers, not 5G equipment on small cells.  If you want more information about small cells, please see our page on small cells or see our blog content on small cell-related articles (there is a lot). 

    Some people incorrectly equate small cells with 5G cell towers.  Small cells are antennas placed on utility poles or light poles and are rarely placed on a cell tower.  Small cells are smaller (25 cubic feet or less) and cover less area – typically less than ½ mile in diameter.  Small cells may be 4G or 5G, but they aren’t towers. Because small cells typically reside on shorter structures (50′ or less) and are deployed in suburban and urban areas, they are almost always closer to people and their residences than 5G cell towers.  This proximity makes them certainly more contentious.  It is important to note that the FCC has removed city and state authority to limit the placement of small cells in the public right of way except in situations where they impede traffic or cause unsafe conditions (not related to radio frequency waves).  

    In this article’s context, we will focus solely on 5G equipment on cell towers, not 5G equipment on small cells.  If you want more information about small cells, please see our page on small cells or see our blog content on small cell-related articles (there is a lot). 

    Will 5G Use Existing Cell Towers? What Are 5G Towers Used For?

    5G towers are essentially the same as 4G towers or 3G towers – except for the newer and more capable equipment placed on the tower. The tower itself does not physically change unless structural upgrades are required to accommodate added weight from new antennas and radios.  Like any cell tower, a 5G tower is used to provide wireless network service to surrounding areas. However, more so than 3G or 4G equipment, 5G equipment offers faster data speeds, more simultaneous connections, and lower latency (the time it takes to connect).  Adding 5G equipment to a 4G cell site on a tower increases that site’s capabilities. 

    Which Wireless Companies are Deploying 5G?

    AT&T, T-Mobile, US Cellular, and Verizon are all actively deploying 5G.  Between 2021 and 2024, DISH Wireless deployed 17,000+ 5G sites nationwide, more of which are required to be built by 2025.  Comcast recently announced that they would deploy 5G sites in some of their markets.  In 2020, the FCC commenced two auctions for the new 5G spectrum: C-Band and CBRS.  For CBRS, the FCC tried out a new auction methodology to assure that smaller providers would also have the opportunity to buy spectrum.  As a result, 222 separate companies won spectrum from the auction.  These companies could deploy CBRS on cell towers and small cells. 

    How Many 5G Cell Towers Are There?

    As of the beginning of 2024, there are approximately 350,000 to 400,000 cell sites in the United States and around 175,000 cell towers. Of these, we anticipate that 70% have 5G enabled of some sort or another.  There are approximately 175,000 small cells in the country at this time.  In 2024, that number will not increase significantly as the wireless carriers focus on deploying 5G onto existing cell sites on existing towers. 

    Graph of estimates of number of cell towers and cell sites in US

    Which Wireless Companies are Deploying 5G?

    AT&T, T-Mobile, US Cellular, and Verizon are all actively deploying 5G.  DISH Wireless is commencing the deployment of 15,000 5G sites nationwide, which are required to be built by 2025.  Comcast recently announced that they would deploy 5G sites in some of their markets.  In 2020, the FCC commenced two auctions for new 5G spectrum – C-Band and CBRS.  For CBRS, the FCC tried out a new auction methodology to assure that smaller providers would also have the opportunity to buy spectrum.  As a result, 222 separate companies won spectrum from the auction.  These companies could deploy CBRS on cell towers and small cells. 

    How Do I Know if a Cell Tower Has 5G on it?

    It is difficult to look at a tower and see whether it is 5G-enabled.  While some specific antennas are installed just for 5G, it is hard for the layperson to identify them.  Furthermore, some antennas provide both 4G and 5G services. The only way we know how to determine whether a tower has 5G enabled is to use measuring equipment or a phone that works on that carrier’s network and see if the site provides 5G service.  By the end of 2023, it will be safe to assume that most cell towers are 5G enabled. 

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    Are 5G Cell Towers Safe, and is it Dangerous to Live Near a 5G Cell Tower?

    In my opinion, yes, they are safe and no, it is not dangerous to live by one.  5G cell towers aren’t significantly different from 4G or 3G towers. They both hold equipment that transmits radio waves.  While 5G uses some higher frequencies, they are not significantly higher, and the equipment is not installed any closer to you.  Thus, if you have a tower near you already, adding 5G to that tower won’t make the tower unsafe.

    If a carrier is proposing a tower near you, eventually it will have 5G, and those also are safe, in our opinion.  The distance between you and the actual 5G transmission equipment on the tower is significant.  The average cell tower is over 100′ tall, and the antennas point outwards, not downwards, so, whether 5G or not, a new or old cell tower is safe in our minds.  Admittedly, we are not radio frequency experts or doctors.  If you would like other opinions, please see this article on whether 5G towers are safe in Popular Mechanics and an article from the American Cancer Society on Cell Phone Towers.   I have personally lived within 200′ of a cell tower and would do so again without fear (I might not say the same about a small cell located 20′ from my bedroom window, though).

    How Will 5G Impact My Existing Cell Tower Lease?

    As we discussed in our webinar on the Impact of 5G on Cell Towers and Cell Tower Leases, 5G will benefit tower owners and landowners with cell towers.  5G is more effective in what the industry refers to as mid-band and high-band spectrum.  The higher the frequency, the less distance the signal travels.  The lesser the distance, the more sites needed to provide 5G service over the same coverage area as lower-frequency 3G or 4G sites.  Not only will carriers need to add equipment to existing sites to convert them to 5G (while in some cases removing old 3G equipment), but they will also have to build new sites in between existing sites to increase the benefits they receive from 5G.  As a result, the probability of having another tenant on your tower may increase as wireless providers look to fill in gaps created between 4G sites due to higher 5G frequencies.  

    Will 5G Make My Cell Tower Lease More Valuable?

    Yes and no. To date, wireless carriers have generated minimal additional revenue for converting tower sites to 5G, although they are saving money by deploying 5G.  Verizon indicated in the second quarter of 2021 that they had saved $10 billion by deploying 5G over their 4G service.  However, 5G as a feature has not been that exciting for the consumer and is not a “must-have” for consumers.  It won’t be until 2023 or 2024 that we expect the average consumer will have to have 5G.  Until that point, wireless service providers are forced to invest a good amount of capital into their networks without seeing an immediate return on investment. 

    The result is that your tower is not necessarily generating more revenue for the carrier and having 5G itself does not make the tower more valuable to the carrier.  Thus, they will not pay more to you just because the tower is 5G-enabled.  Several landowners have reached out to us and asked if they can charge more for 5G.  In most cases, the answer is no unless you have language in your lease that prevents them from making changes on the tower or rooftop site. Conversely, if you restrict their ability to add 5G equipment to the tower, they may have to look for other sites.

    In other words, when a carrier converts a tower to 5G, that does not mean your lease is more valuable. However, in some cases, it can become more valuable.  Conversion to 5G does help the longevity of the lease: a wireless carrier is unlikely to upgrade a site to 5G and then terminate the lease.  

    If you have a cell tower or rooftop cell site lease and have received a consent request to add 5G equipment to the tower, please contact us.  If you have received a request to expand your lease area to accommodate a new collocation or sublease on the tower, let us know.  

    We will review the proposed request and your lease and let you know whether you should ask for additional rent. The initial conversation and review are free, and we don’t charge a dime until we know we can help you and you agree to retain us in writing.

    FAQs

    It is important to distinguish between cell towers and small cells.  A cell tower is the structure upon which cell sites are located both 4G and 5G.  Small cells are standalone antenna sites that are less than 50’.  Both small cells and cell towers emit noise. A 5G cell site is similar to a 4G cell site in terms of noise.  Either makes less noise than a typical air conditioner handler.  Small cells though make even less noise but can be closer to your house.  A small cell typically makes less noise than a window air conditioner unit.

    It depends upon the 5G frequency in use. Low band 5G frequencies (below 2.5 GHz) can reach up to 10 miles but data bandwidth is limited. Mid-band frequencies (2.5GHz to 6GHz) handle more data but are limited in distance to a few miles if deployed on a cell tower. High band 5G is generally only deployed on small cells and can reach 500’ or less in most cases.

    A 5G cell tower with MassiveMIMO can use 10 kilowatts of power.

    It is important to distinguish between a cell tower and a small cell – as some people are thinking of small cells when they say 5G cell tower. A 5G cell tower inclusive a 5G macrocell and the tower structure can run $150,000 and up. A 5G small cell runs $25,000 and up.
    5G cell towers are used to provide cellular and data services to wireless consumers. 5G is the 5th iteration of standards related to wireless transmissions and the cell towers accommodate equipment that meets these standards.
    There isn’t much difference between a 4G and 5G tower. The main difference is in the transmission equipment installed on cell towers. The physical tower structure is the same and supports any generation of technology.
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