Small Cell Towers and Leases

By our estimate, there are approximately 150,000-200,000 small cells deployed in the United States. This number excludes indoor small cells. WSPs (Wireless Service Providers) appear to be embracing small cells in a much bigger way as of late. In the last six months, we have observed a significant increase in the number of news articles related to small cell applications to municipalities. These applications are occurring not just in urban areas (the so-called NFL cities) but also in smaller cities and suburban areas across the US.

Small Cell Towers And Leases

Here are our estimates or the reported numbers of small cell sites in the US as of Q3, 2022. This does not include indoor small cells, or indoor or outdoor DAS nodes unless otherwise indicated.

Wireless Service Provider Number of Outdoor Small Cells Reported/Estimate
60,000 – 70,000
SITA Estimate
SITA Estimate
Reported- includes exterior DAS nodes 
75,000 – 90,000
SITA Estimate

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    Who Owns Them?

    Many small cells are self-deployed and owned by the wireless service providers.  AT&T and Verizon have led US carriers in terms of deploying their own small cells.  

    Crown Castle is the largest developer of third-party small cells, having deployed 8,000 or so small cells in 2018 and expecting to deploy 10,000 in 2019. CCI represents that they have 65,000 small cells on-air or in the pipeline against 75,000 route miles of fiber. Crown Castle’s small cell successes are heavily tied to previous large acquisitions of fiber. (Lightower, FiberNet, Sunesys, and Wilcon). In markets other than those where CCI acquired fiber, there has been limited activity. American Tower Corporation and SBA Communications have both chosen to stay out of small cells due to diminished returns vs. towers.  Other developers of small cell infrastructure include Zayo, Extenet, Boingo, and some fiber companies. 

    Are There Small Cell Leases?

    Yes, there are small cell leases, although most are between with municipalities/cities. Mostly this is due to the FCC Declaratory Ruling and 3rd Order which basically gave virtually free access to the public ROW ($270/year per node) to small cell providers. (See this article on the Winners and Losers of the FCC 3rd Order) So, while there are small cell leases, most are between municipalities and WSPs or third-party infrastructure companies like Crown Castle. Given how cheap it is for these companies to place small cells in the ROW, there isn’t much incentive for them to solicit private landowners for small cell leases. The exception to this is when the property owner controls a significant amount of land AND there is a need for capacity related small cells in the area. (For example, at a shopping mall or large corporate campus).

    How much are small cell lease rates?

    It depends upon whether the small cell is being placed on public property or private property.  If the small cells are being placed in the public right of way, generally, the FCC 3rd Order applies and lease rates are $270/year per year.  In 28 states, the industry has pushed through industry friendly legislation which can reduce the rate paid to as low as $100/year per small cell.   

    For small cells placed on private property (or in some cases, public property outside of the public right of way), wireless providers and small cell third party operators (like Crown Castle) typically pay more.  The rates will range from $50/month to $1,000/month.  Given that small cell lease rates are higher on private property, wireless providers tend to do everything they can to put them in public rights-of-way.   

    I Have Been Asked To Consent To A Small Cell On My Property. What Should I Do?

    If they are asking for your consent, it is possible that the WSP doesn’t have the right to place a small cell on your property. Alternatively, it may be that the utility that owns the pole on which they want to add a small cell requires that the WSP get permission from the landowner before the utility will allow placement of a small cell on the utility pole. Sometimes these requests for consent come with a small one-time fee like $500. Other times they don’t. Generally, we recommend against granting approval/consent for the placement of a small cell on your property especially for a nominal fee. However, rejecting their request doesn’t necessarily mean that they will end up paying you rent. Sometimes, it is a matter of convenience or reducing the cost of the small cell. In those cases, if you oppose the request, they may be able to deploy a new small cell AND pole on your property without your consent. In other cases, they need your property and without your consent would not be able to add a small cell and it might be time to start discussing the possibility of a lease.

    I Have Been Contacted For A Small Cell Lease. What Should I Do?

    First and foremost, it is important to get more information about the small cell they are proposing to add.  Will it be a new pole?  If so, where is it going on the property?  What height will it be?  What will it look like? Are there other similar small cells in the area that you can see?  What are they offering?  The wireless carriers like to start offering a few hundred dollars a month or a decent one-time fee.   Whether they will agree to pay more is really dependent upon how much property you own and where the nearest public ROW is compared to your property.  Small cell leases are similar to cell tower leases in that the value to the WSP varies depending upon location and difficulty of zoning.  For areas with tougher regulations regarding small cells, wireless carriers may be more willing to pay to get a small cell on your property especially if they have network issues.   

    A company is offering to market my properties for small cells for free

    Over the past 5 years, there have been several attempts to start companies that “market” your property for small cells and 5G sites.  These companies claim that they can find wireless carriers to lease your property.  

    Generally, we aren’t fans of 5G site marketing.  For more details, see 5G Site Marketing: Scam or Opportunity?

    Other Helpful Articles About Small Cells (indoor and out)
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