What incentives are there to building cell phone towers?
August 1, 2016 5:03 PM   Subscribe

My wife's family has a mountain resort property with no cell service. A consultant has told them that their number one priority needs to be getting a cell tower built. They made it sound like it would just be a necessary expense, with no return on the investment except that more people would stay at the resort. But how does the cell tower business work?

Do people build towers as an investment, and charge phone companies to use them or something?
Since each phone company has a different coverage map, how would a tower not built by the phone company work? Surely you wouldn't have to have separate hardware for each phone company?
posted by bitslayer to Technology (10 answers total)
Not exactly the same thing, but maybe this helps: I live in a highrise building; we have multiple companies antennas on the roof. The phone companies all pay their own installation and operation costs, plus a yearly rental fee to my condo's HOA for letting them use our roof.
posted by easily confused at 5:19 PM on August 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

well, building towers to sell to various cellular operators is totally a thing. it depends on how many people would be served by this. if the concern is only for the resort guests then perhaps having satellite internet service that is shared would be a better roi. or even advertising as a cell free zone.
posted by lescour at 5:22 PM on August 1, 2016

They made it sound like it would just be a necessary expense, with no return on the investment except that more people would stay at the resort

This is a conflicting statement considering that getting more people to stay at the resort is exactly the kind of ROI I'd think your wife's family would be looking for?

Its starting to reach a point where not having cell service will likely impact bookings.
posted by bitdamaged at 5:30 PM on August 1, 2016 [7 favorites]

In some cases, property owners lease their land to the cellphone companies, who build the tower. In other cases, they assign management of the tower to a third party (American Tower and Crown Castle are the two big ones in the US). (And, actually, in some cases, the property owner might lease the land to the tower management company, which builds the tower, or might build the tower itself and lease to the carrier). Whether you build the tower yourself or someone else does it, the property owner gets to charge the tenants on the tower rent, though if you assign management of the tower to a third party, some of that rent will go to the third party for their trouble in the form of a management fee. But there is income to be generated, beyond simply attracting more customers to the resort.

Also, more than one cellular provider can be on a tower, depending on the spectrum -- only one cellphone company can have a license for a particular band of spectrum in a geographic area, so it's not like AT&T and Verizon are trying to use the same spectrum in the same town, though there can be interference issues if the providers hold licenses in adjacent bands.

Tower construction and siting is not simple -- for instance, there are mandatory environmental reviews and the FAA will have to do a case study to ensure that the tower won't present a risk to air traffic, in addition to any local zoning and permitting requirements. You can decide to proceed on your own and then try to attract tenants and/or management, but it might be simpler to see if a carrier (or a tower management company) is willing to take on the up-front cost for you. It might mean less monthly revenue, but it also means you won't have to fuss with all of the minutiae of getting a tower built.
posted by devinemissk at 5:59 PM on August 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Surely you wouldn't have to have separate hardware for each phone company?

Yeah, pretty much. Though many wireless facilities (both on buildings and on towers or monopoles or electrical transmission towers or whatever) host equipment for more than one carrier, and the carriers allow roaming on each other's networks (where possible).

A lot of towers built by individual landlords and by the carriers themselves have been purchased by tower companies, who may also be useful contacts. Crown Castle, American Tower, and SBA are some of the largest.

Depending on where this mountain resort is, zoning may be a problem. You might check on whether local jurisdictions have restrictions that make building wireless sites more of a hassle than it's worth.
posted by asperity at 6:03 PM on August 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Few things to consider: 1) If the property is in such an area that operators should have coverage, i.e. it would be in their interest to have as there are enough visitors for it to be financially viable, and 2) the property itself has an ideal location within the general area.

If answer to both is yes, it might make sense to contact American Tower and their competitors. They specialize in securing, i.e. leasing cell tower (or rooftop, etc.) spots and make the necessary investments and then lease the space to he cell companies. Most cell companies own very few of their own cell sites anymore. Contacting American Tower (or some such company) should procure a meaningful answers quicker.
posted by zeikka at 6:03 PM on August 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Most carriers have websites specifically about constructing and leasing towers.
posted by ryanrs at 6:03 PM on August 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

How big? Do you have broadband internet?

If this is more like a bed&breakfast size place, most cellphone companies will sell you personal "micro" or "nano" cells that provide a very limited cell signal.

ATT MicroCell'
T Mobile CellSpot
Verizon Network Extender

These devices usually are not public-facing, e.g. they require the guest to register their phone number with the owner (you). But if you are only hosting a few guests, this might be feasible?
posted by soylent00FF00 at 6:14 PM on August 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

FWIW, there are small resorts scattered here and there that use the lack of cell service as a selling point. Isolation, and all that.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:01 PM on August 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I am no longer in touch with the industry, but when I was working in the telephone engineering business there was a Rural Wireless Association that worked on this sort of thing. Rural wireless is a money loosing business because the number of paying clients is too small for the cost of a tower installation. Fortunately, your wireless bill includes a charge to offset the cost of building antennas out in the sticks. Contact the Rural Wireless Association and see if they can offer you any guidance on your quest.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 8:58 AM on August 2, 2016

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