Working with wireless carriers


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If your company owns a tower, it is likely that you are either currently leasing space to a wireless carrier or have been approached to lease space. Station managers and owners are well aware of the potential revenue opportunities that leasing tower space yields, and some have formed separate business units to maximize revenue through leasing their tower assets.

Build it and will they come?

When it comes to the construction of new towers, several broadcast station owners build towers with additional capacity to accommodate potential tenants. In most cases, this is definitely the proper approach, however it will not necessarily mean that wireless carriers will be scrambling for space and, in fact, you may never realize additional revenue. To clarify this statement, I'll take you through the internal process that carriers use to decide where sites need to be built.

The search ring

If a tower already exists in a suitable spot, wireless carriers are usually eager to lease space.

Wireless carriers require sites for a number of purposes such as coverage (providing signal in certain areas), fill (providing signal in gaps between adjacent cell sites), and quality (additional site to offload call traffic from adjacent cell sites).

Because carriers have been building sites for the past 15 years or so, it is fair to assume most of the initial coverage objectives have been met (in the top 100 markets) with the exception of formerly rural areas where there is significant movement of population due to urban sprawl. This leaves the majority of new sites being built for the purpose of fill or quality. Also, consider that the next generation, called 3G (and 4G), of wireless will require significantly more bandwidth (permitting high-speed data and voice services) than currently available, therefore the FCC will grant new spectrum to wireless carriers in the near future to accommodate the emerging technologies. The projected increase in bandwidth will create additional requirements for fill sites.

The decision of where a specific site is needed comes from the network-engineering group of the respective carrier. The need is largely determined by 1) responding to customer complaints of poor signal and dropped calls and 2) the amount of money a site could potentially generate, a function of the total call traffic handled by an individual site, i.e. the ability to handle increased simultaneous callers equals more revenue. Once the need is determined, a search ring is issued to the group (or outside vendor) responsible for finding a viable site; this is typically called the site acquisition phase. The search ring document itself is nothing more than a circle overlayed on a street-level map; the centroid of the ring represents the optimum location for a site based on theoretical limits. A search ring is similar to the Area to Locate study used by broadcasters to identify potential tower locations based on co-channel and adjacent-channel interference limits.

Based on the type (PCS, cellular) of site and its purpose (coverage, fill, quality) the search ring might be as small as a half mile in diameter. A ring this small doesn't provide many options in terms of what might be available. Reality: It is also the reason you may not be receiving inquiries for space on your tower.

Complicating the identification of potential site candidates, wireless sites need to meet four primary criteria. They must be capable of meeting the qualifications in Table 1.

Site types

In the wireless world there are two basic types of sites: rawland or collocation. Rawland sites are those that require a new supporting structure (tower, monopole, flagpole) to mount the antennas. Collocation sites are sites where existing structures are used to mount antennas (rooftops, existing towers, steeples). From a cost perspective, collocated sites are generally cheaper to build, however certain collocation sites can cost significantly more than a rawland, particularly if sites are required to be concealed from view and significant structural modifications are required to replace or reconfigure portions of an existing structure. Reality: Vendors that perform wireless site development for carriers usually prefer to build rawland sites because they get paid a higher rate. The downside is that rawland sites are much harder to zone and could become a costly battle if there is a lot of public opposition.

Leasing issues

In their ideal world, carriers want the potential landlord to accept the lease that they provide (also termed “using the carriers' paper”). The fact is that landlords will accept a lease on carriers' paper, but with changes, ranging from minor language modifications to complete removal or rewriting of major sections of the lease. The majority of carriers will ultimately agree to a lease providing there are no significant changes to the portions of a lease that deal with term (they generally like to maintain the lease for 20 years,) restrictions placed on their ability to make technical changes/upgrades as necessary (provided those changes don't exceed the original defined leased premise,) and indemnification (don't make them liable for every problem unless it is a direct result of the tenant's installation).

Leasing rates vary depending on the market, the carriers desire/need for the particular site, the ease of zoning, the availability of alternate sites within the ring, the amount of anticipated traffic on the site and if additional amounts need to be paid for a sublease (i.e. different ground owner than the tower owner). Reality: typical wireless lease rates average $2,000/month with 3 percent per year escalation. Most carriers have predetermined maximum lease rates (per market) that are automatically acceptable. If that amount is exceeded, it will need approval from an upper level of management.

Does the zoning work?

Site RequirementsDetails
LeasableThe potential landlord must be agreeable to most of the carriers business terms. Can proper right-of-ways and easement be obtained?
ZonedMost jurisdictions only permit telecommunications facilities in certain types of areas (industrial, commercial).
PermittedMust be able to meet all governing building codes (the need to retrofit an old structure to meet current codes might be cost prohibitive).
ConstructedCan the site be reasonably and safely constructed? Is there proper access for cranes and other construction equipment, can power/telco be brought to the site?
Table 1. Tower site qualification criteria.

Zoning for telecommunications sites is problematic, primarily due to the increased awareness of the impact of wireless sites within a community. “Not in my backyard” is a common theme heard in a zoning hearing for wireless sites; the public comments range from potential radiation issues to visual and environmental impact. As the sites become closer to residential areas, the effects a site will have on home values becomes a problem. In some respects, zoning has become a little easier because most jurisdictions have put a wireless ordinance in place, which provides a clear definition, up front, of where a site can be placed and the appropriate steps required to get approvals.

Unfortunately, the nature of wireless network design doesn't always place a site where it might be zoneable due to use restrictions or perhaps not meeting specified property setbacks, in which case a variance will be requested. However, this can take a long time and drive the cost well beyond budgeted amounts. If you are building a new tower, any zoning approval you are seeking should also state that the use of the tower by subsequent wireless tenants will be permitted by right, thus eliminating the majority of zoning obstacles by potential wireless tenants. Reality: Zoning boards in most jurisdictions may actually help you lease space because they will always try to have a carrier located on an existing tower first, otherwise it is up to the carrier to present solid testimony supporting the need to be somewhere other than your tower. Reality 2: Towns have figured out that they can make money on wireless carriers if they lease space on town-owned property, therefore wireless ordinances may specify that the carrier should identify or rule-out suitable town-owned opportunities before choosing other locations.

Final thoughts

Whether your company owns existing tower assets or you are getting ready to build a new structure, always be aware of where wireless carriers are located nearby (within 1.5 miles), the density of population or the presence of major roads nearby, this will give you a good indication of potential future revenue opportunities that may exist. For example, you may note existing monopolies or rooftops with carriers installed, this might indicate an adequate supply of locations within the area, however it could also mean that the population center is moving in the direction of your tower and a need for additional sites in the future.

Myth: You can solicit carriers for space on your tower. As mentioned, a carrier has a specific objective in mind. While it never hurts to advertise yourself as a wireless-friendly landlord, you are unlikely to drive business to your tower unless it fits with their plan. When the time is right, they will find you.

Consolidation within the industry is reducing the field of potential tenants. Companies that have merged (AT&T/Cingular, Sprint/Nextel) are actively consolidating both carriers within single sites, where possible, thus eliminating the need for hundreds of sites throughout the county. This is a trend expected to continue over several years.


McNamara is president of Applied Wireless, Cape Coral, FL. Contact him at kevin@appliedwirelessinc.com.




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