Cell tower companies are entities that own and operate cell towers. Tower companies either build or acquire towers from other tower companies or wireless carriers. These companies develop and operate towers to lease space on the towers to wireless providers. Leases between a tower company and a wireless provider are known as collocation or tenant leases. The tower company pays for expenses to operate the tower and in return, collects rent of $1,000/mo. to $5,000/mo. in most cases per collocation. The average cell tower owned by the three largest tower companies in the United States has approximately 2.5 to 3 wireless collocations on it.
As of year end 2023, the U.S. cell tower industry is pretty concentrated at the top where the top three tower companies own 100,000 of the estimated 250,000 cell towers in the country. From there it starts to get highly fragmented with 58% of cell tower companies owning between 1-10 towers and another 25% owning between 11-100 towers. Below is a chart with our estimates on the number of assets owned by each of the three largest public tower companies. We also show approximate numbers of non-cell tower assets each company owns or controls.
Besides owning towers, cell tower companies also manage rooftops on buildings owned by others. Some of the top cell tower companies have also purchased portfolios of leases from lease buyout companies. Lease buyout companies like Communications Capital Group and Wireless Capital Partners no longer exist after selling their portfolio of leases that they bought from landowners and building owners. Some tower companies (notably Crown Castle) have aggressively pursued ownership of small cells and fiber optic networks.
Not anymore. Historically, wireless carriers once owned towers with some carriers even operating their own tower companies (T-Mobile Towers, AT&T Towers, US Cellular Towers). However, over the last 20 years, the tower companies have bought towers from wireless carriers. The carriers saw the towers as extra non-critical assets that could be exchanged for capital. Some of the largest tower acquisitions include:
We estimate that there are approximately 15,000 towers in the US in 2023 that are still owned by the wireless carriers.
Below is a list of tower companies listed by the number of towers owned as estimated by Steel in the Air. Some of these tower companies have more “sites” in their inventory which include properties or structures (like billboards or signs) that they manage for the entity that owns the structures. The list below only includes owned towers, not managed sites. If you believe the list is incorrect, please contact us with the number of owned towers in your portfolio.
|Number of Towers|
|Phoenix Tower International||950|
|Industrial Tower West||125|
|Sun State Towers||120|
* Peppertree purchased 1023 towers from AT&T under the name Octagon Towers, but they also have investments in other tower companies including TowerCo, Blue Sky Towers, Branch Towers, Horvath Towers, Clearview Tower Company, AW Towers, K2 Towers, Pegasus Tower Development.