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By our estimate, there are approximately 75,000-100,000 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. The FCC has suggested that 80% of new cell site deployments will be small cells. We believe the percentage will be skewed even higher toward small cells due to the significant lack of 5G coverage currently available. 

SMALL CELL TOWERS AND LEASES

  • Whose Small Cells Are They? Here are our estimates or the reported numbers of small cell sites in the US as of Q2, 2019.  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 
    AT&T  7,500 to 10,000  SITA Estimate 
    Sprint  30,000  Reported- most of these are strand mounted small cells.  
    T-Mobile  23,000  Reported- includes exterior DAS nodes 
    Verizon  10,000 to 15,000  SITA Estimate 
  • Who Owns Them? Many small cells are self-deployed and owned by the WSPs.  Verizon and AT&T are more active in deploying their own small cells partially because they are both actively trying to develop mmWave networks for fixed wireless broadband services to the home.  T-Mobile and Sprint tend to use other companies.    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 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). 
  • 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.   
Each one of these situations is different.  Some may justify retaining our services to evaluate the small cell tower lease.  Others may not.  Call us, tell us what’s going on, and we will let you know if we can help, and if so, what the fee will be.   
Other Helpful Articles About Small Cells (indoor and out)
https://www.steelintheair.com/das-and-small-cells/ 
https://www.steelintheair.com/in-building-wireless/ 
https://www.steelintheair.com/ten-tips-for-successful-cell-site-negotiations/ 
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