Marek’s Take: The U.S. tower conundrum

Marek's take

This isn’t a new situation, but it is a confounding one for wireless operators, particularly greenfield operators like Dish Network. I’m talking about the fact that U.S. tower companies don’t really know the type of antennas or even how many antennas are currently transmitting on their towers.

Dish Network’s EVP of Network Development Dave Mayo brought up this conundrum during his recent keynote appearance at the Wireless Infrastucture Association’s Connect (X) trade show in Denver. Speaking to a room full of infrastructure companies, including representatives from the nation’s largest tower owners, Mayo said that he finds it fascinating that the tower business wants to sell space on its towers but “they don’t know what they have.”  Instead, he bemoaned, Dish must pay for structural assessments on towers to see if there is space on the tower for the company’s radios. “It would go much smoother for your carrier customers, if you had an inventory and you knew what each tower would hold,” Mayo said.

Dish, of course, is in the midst of building a nationwide greenfield 5G network and is trying to meet its FCC-mandated June 14, 2022, deadline of launching its network nationwide and being able to offer service to 20% of the population of the U.S.  

Nevertheless, Mayo said this “weird paradigm” in which tower operators don’t really know what is on their towers probably exists because no operator has built a greenfield network in the U.S. in a very long time and wireless operators have learned to tolerate it because they usually only need to do a handful of tower assessments at a time.

“If I had the certainty that the space was there and it had the structural capacity that I need, it would save me a lot of time,” Mayo added.

Notably, Dish Network has announced deals with several major tower companies in the U.S. including Vertical Bridge, which is a privately owned company with an extensive portfolio of towers across the U.S. and Puerto Rico and Crown Castle, which Dish has the ability to lease space on up to 20,000 towers. The company also has an agreement with American Tower for access to up to 20,000 sites and with SBA Communications for an undisclosed number of sites.

In addition, Dish has deals with seven smaller tower companies across the U.S. for access to 4,000 macro towers.

The reason tower owners are in the dark about their towers likely stems from all the consolidation that has occurred. In the early days of the wireless industry, wireless carriers built and owned their own towers. But over the past decade, most operators have sold these assets. For example, AT&T sold 9,700 towers to Crown Castle for $4.85 billion in 2013 and Verizon sold 11,324 towers to American Tower for $5 billion in 2015. UScellular is one of the few major operators that still owns its towers. The company is now leasing space on those towers to others.

Bryan Darr, EVP of smart communities with Ookla, said that despite the lack of information about their tower portfolios, tower companies don’t have a lot of incentive to change because it would be very labor intensive and costly to check each individual tower until it is requested. 

Jennifer Alvarez, co-founder and CEO of Aurora Insight, a company that uses sensors to collect and measure radio frequency spectrum, said that her company could help tower companies understand what equipment is on their towers and even identify potential lease opportunities. However, Alvarez said that her company hasn’t gained traction with tower companies and the burden remains on the mobile operator. “That’s just how things have worked,” she said.

But it may not be a good long-term strategy. Mobile operators are still building their 5G networks and many are starting to add more sites to fill in coverage gaps. The abundance 5G sites plus the use of more spectrum bands is only going to make these tower site assessments more critical for network planning.

Perhaps it’s time for tower companies to get a better handle on their assets.