How Specific Cell Tower Sites are Chosen
When wireless carriers determine that a new cell tower or antenna site is needed in a given area, the Radio Frequency (RF) engineering department (RF) issues what is commonly known as a "Search Ring." A Search Ring is a circle or other shape drawn on a map that indicates where a site could be located to meet the RF engineering requirements. The size of this search ring varies depending upon the topography (hilliness or flatness of the area), the demographics (where and what type of customer base) and other factors including whether the area is urban, suburban or rural in nature.
The Search Ring is handed to a Site Acquisition Agent (Site Ac) who either works for the wireless carrier or for a company that the wireless carrier has contracted with to find cell tower sites. The Site Ac drives the search ring looking for suitable land sites that must meet some minimum criteria. These include:
- Parcel must be large enough for a cell tower—Normally (but not always) this is a parcel double the size of the height of the tower. So if a tower is 100 ft tall, the parcel must be 200' x 200'.
- Parcel must have easy and cheap access from a public road.
- Parcel must be suitable from a zoning perspective. In many jurisdictions, towers are only allowed on commercially or industrially zoned parcels. Some areas allow towers on agriculturally zoned parcels, and most do NOT allow towers on residentially zoned parcels. (For more information on zoning requirements please see the following page.)
- Parcels must not have conditions that would make constructing a tower unduly expensive. These conditions can include wetlands, poor or rocky soil conditions, significant distance to the cell tower site from the main road, lots of trees, and possible hazardous waste on the property.
- Parcel landowners must be willing to lease the site at rates acceptable to the wireless carrier. Please see Steel in the Air's webpage on cell tower leases for more information.
One thing to note is that, contrary to public belief, the ground elevation is not the most important factor. Just because you live on the tallest or second tallest hill in the area or county does not mean that your location is preferred from a wireless perspective, unless the location is in a "Search Ring."
It is also important to note that these Search Rings are proprietary and are not available to the public or even to industry experts. They are not registered or provided to the local, state, or federal governments. There is no way of knowing if your location is in a search ring until an agent comes knocking on your door.
The Site Ac Agent will first make sure that there are no existing structures in the Search Ring that would work. Wireless carriers prefer to locate on existing structures first before building a new tower. They do this because many zoning jurisdictions require this due diligence and because it reduces development costs and time to market. These structures can be buildings, existing towers, existing structures like water towers, or anything else that provides suitable heights. If there are suitable structures, the carrier will then just lease space on the tower, and no new tower will be built.
If there is not an existing tower, then the Site Ac Agent will approach those landowners who have parcels that meet the criteria listed above. They will contact multiple owners and find out which owners are interested. These sites then become candidates for the tower. The negotiations then begin.
Please see our page on Cell Site Lease Negotiations for more information on what happens next.