By Mike Ritter
In the past five years, more than 90% of cell sites in the U.S. have either changed ownership or control. This has occurred for two reasons. First, many cell site leases have been sold to third party “aggregators” who in turn re-sell them to the tower companies such as American Tower and Crown Castle. Second, tower companies have purchased the rights to nearly all the existing sites. For example, in 2015, Verizon sold its cell sites to American Tower for $5 billion. Previously, AT&T and T-Mobile made similar moves.
Landlords who signed leases prior to 2015 most likely have a new player involved. In some cases, notice was sent to landlords introducing the tower company as the new “tenant.” Landlords are frequently confused by this and question what role is played by the tower company. Sometimes the rent check now comes from the tower company. When changes are made to the cell site, landlords do not know who to call with questions and concerns. In short, the change of control from the wireless carrier as tenant to the tower company now in control has resulted in confusion and lost opportunities for cell site landlords.
Since the tower company’s core business is the subleasing of space on towers it controls, there have been many recent examples of site modifications to (a) add new tenants on the tower, (b) upgrade existing equipment and antennas on the tower, and (c) remove equipment on the tower. The trend has been for the tower company to initiate and manage these projects on behalf of the wireless carrier. However, the tower company may not be willing to fully disclose its plans to the landlord. Some landlords are approached by the tower company seeking authorization to approve a project without clear details. Others are not approached at all under the presumption by the tower company that notice or approval by the landlord is not required.
It has never been more important for landlords to know what’s in their lease and what’s at the cell site. We recommend an annual lease review and site audit. Get information, ask questions and be vigilant in managing your cell site lease.