On many occasions, the industry refers to cell towers interchangeably with the term “cell sites.” A notable example was during the 2016 Super Bowl, during which T-Mobile advertised that it has more LTE towers than Verizon. To be perfectly accurate, T-Mobile should have said that it has more LTE “cell sites” than Verizon. Even the press regularly publishes the words “cell tower” or “cell phone tower” interchangeably when referring to a specific site build or location.
In 20% of news articles about cell sites, the reporter refers to a cell tower when they really should be saying cell site. What is the difference?
A Cell Site refers to the antenna and ground equipment used to transmit cell phone signals to and from the mobile phone back to the receiver. This equipment is likely to include transmitters/receivers, GPS, backup power sources, base transceiver station (BTS), and more.
A Cell Phone Tower is the actual physical structure that the antennas are attached to. Please see our page on types of cell phone towers for more information about recognizing different types of towers.
It’s also worth noting that a tower can have multiple sites installed upon it. For an example, please see the image above where there are two cell sites (suppose these belong to T-Mobile and Verizon, respectively) installed on a cell phone tower. The technical term for the installation of a cell site on a cell tower is “collocation.” The tower could be owned by T-Mobile or Verizon, or one of the two carriers might have sold the tower to a third-party tower company such as American Tower or Crown Castle. Even if the tower is sold, the “cell site” itself still belongs to the wireless telecom.
With the advent of Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) and small cells, there is more diversity today in the deployment of cellular equipment than ever before. The various types are designed to work with each other comprehensively in a system. This system is known, in the industry, as a Heterogeneous Network (aka Het-Net).
Below, please see pictures and descriptions of the various types of cellular sites, including cell towers and small cell networks. We’ve also designed an interactive illustration that portrays how a cell phone network functions as a whole.
A rooftop cell site is built when antenna and transmission equipment are installed on a building’s roof. The Subject Site, in this case, is located on top of a building or other support structure (such as a church steeple, billboard, flagpole, etc). Its antennas and equipment are placed on the roof (or highest point), typically with the antennas mounted near or on the parapet of the roof so they can communicate in all directions. Most rooftop cell sites include three sets of antennas (aka “sectors”), which are pointed at 120-degree intervals from each other. There are typically between 2-4 antennas per sector. The equipment on the roof is connected to power and to backhaul (either via telephone service, microwave, or fiber optic cable) to the main telephone system.
A small cell is an individual cell site that is smaller in size, power, and coverage radius. Small cells are typically deployed to “densify” or increase the capacity of the overall network. When most people envision cellular communication networks, they think of what the industry refers to as macrocells, such as those installed on towers or rooftops. A small cell is much smaller. Whereas the transmission equipment for a macrocell typically needs more than 150 sf to be installed, the equipment from a small cell can be installed in a cabinet approximately the same size as a high school locker. With small cells, there are typically only one antenna per cell. Small cells, like macrocells, also require power and backhaul.
The Outdoor Distributed Antenna System (ODAS) is similar to a small cell in terms of the antennas that are installed on poles or other structures; however instead of having the transmission equipment installed separately with every set of antennas, there is a “hub” where the equipment is installed collectively. The antenna locations are called “nodes” and are connected typically by fiber optic cables to the hub where they connect with the transmission equipment. An ODAS may be used to fill in coverage where zoning regulations make it difficult or impossible to add a traditional tower. Examples of outdoor DAS’s can be found in the French Quarter in New Orleans, in downtown Charlotte, NY, or on the island of Nantucket, MA. Because the antennas are often mounted on existing infrastructure like utility poles or buildings, they are often considered by local residents to be more aesthetically pleasing.
An indoor DAS (in-building wireless system) is similar to an outdoor DAS (ODAS) but the components are meant for indoor usage. Just like an ODAS, there is a central hub where the transmission equipment is installed. There are also antennas (nodes) installed within the building, which are connected to the hub by ethernet or fiber optic cable. The indoor DAS provides coverage to parts of the building that outdoor macrocells (either rooftop or tower based) can’t reach. It also expands capacity on the network and relieves stress to the outdoor macrocell sites. Indoor DAS installations are normally used on larger buildings and venues like stadiums or arenas, or large (500,000 sf or more) residential or commercial buildings.
Tenant Improvements can also be installed on structures other than buildings or towers. The industry refers to these types of installations a “tenant improvements,” meaning that the wireless carrier is installing its antennas and equipment on or near an existing structure that was not originally built or designed to accommodate cellular equipment. Examples of tenant improvements include water towers, utility poles or towers, billboards, outdoor stadium light poles, and other creative installations.
In rare cases, a cell site can be installed on the ground itself. The equipment is installed within a typical lease area or compound, but the antennas are mounted to antenna mounts attached to the ground. This is normally only used in hilly areas where the antennas have higher elevation than the surrounding area and the local municipality prefers not to have towers of any type. The antenna installations at these types of sites can be concealed so that they can’t be seen from the surrounding areas.
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