Wireless networks transmit voice and data signals over thousands of cell towers, using a range of radio frequency airwaves, that can reach a customer’s cell phone several miles away. Ultimately, how far a cell tower’s coverage radius extends, determines whether or not a customer’s cell phone receives wireless service from carriers like Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile.
On average, the maximum usable range of a cell tower is 25 miles. While the typical coverage radius of a cell tower is 1 to 3 miles and in dense urban environments, a cell tower usually reaches 0.25 miles to 1 mile before handing off a user’s connection to another nearby cell site.
Dgtl Infra provides a comprehensive overview detailing how far cell towers can reach, including those operating on 4G LTE and 5G wireless telecommunications standards, as well as the range of alternative forms of digital infrastructure like 5G small cells.
What is the Range of a Cell Tower?
On average, the maximum usable range of a cell tower is 25 miles (40 kilometers) and in some cases, cell tower radio signals can reach up to 45 miles (72 kilometers) in distance. However, due to a number of factors, the typical coverage radius of a cell tower is only 1 to 3 miles (1.6 to 5 kilometers) and in dense urban environments, a cell tower usually reaches 0.25 miles to 1 mile (0.4 to 1.6 kilometers) before handing off a user’s connection to another nearby cell site.
Cell towers are vertical structures, which range from 100 to 400 feet in height, that utilize antennas to transmit a radio signal from the tower, to a customer’s mobile device. As shown below, by positioning antennas high in the air, cell towers are able to provide wireless coverage for a wide area (or radius).
Cell Towers Provide Wireless Coverage for a Wide Area
Overall, several factors impact how far a cell tower signal can reach, meaning that customers outside of a cell tower’s range may not receive wireless service. A cell tower’s range is not a fixed distance and several factors impact how far a cell tower can reach, including:
- Spectrum: radio frequency airwaves which are licensed to wireless carriers, such as Verizon, who utilize the spectrum to transmit wireless communications signals. Different radio frequencies can travel either a shorter or greater distance
- Network Capacity: demand for high-bandwidth applications and higher quality of service results in a shrinking range at which cell towers can transmit radio signals
- Terrain: natural and man-made obstructions, like mountains, hills, valleys, trees, and buildings, can block, absorb, and reflect radio signals
- Transmission Power: a cell tower’s radio transmits a signal by driving a current on an antenna, which influences how far that signal can reach
Below we provide greater detail on each of these four factors that impact how far a cell tower signal can reach:
Spectrum Influences Cell Tower Range
As a general rule, higher frequency radio signals carry voice, video, and data traffic to-and-from cell towers over a shorter distance before dissipating. Whereas lower frequency signals travel a greater distance, providing cell towers with a larger coverage range (or radius).
Below is an illustration of a cell tower’s coverage radius using high-band or millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum in dense urban environments, mid-band spectrum in metro locations, and low-band spectrum for nationwide (i.e., wide area) coverage.
Cell Tower Coverage Radius by Spectrum Band
Important distinctions between low-band, mid-band, and high-band (mmWave) spectrum are highlighted below:
C-band and CBRS
27.5 to 31 GHz
37, 39, 47 GHz
|Cell Tower Range||Up to 25 miles|
|1 to 12 miles|
(1.6 to 19 kilometers)
|50 to 2,000 feet|
(15 to 600 meters)
|Locations||Rural / Suburban / Urban||Suburban / Urban||Urban / Dense Urban|
To further understand how spectrum influences cell tower range, we can analyze how far different frequency bands would reach, from a cell tower, in “free space”. Specifically, below is a diagram showing cell tower coverage radius, using low-band frequencies (600 MHz, 700 MHz, 800 MHz), mid-band frequencies (2.0 GHz, 2.5 GHz, 3.7 GHz), and high-band frequencies (millimeter wave / mmWave).
Cell Tower Coverage Radius with Low-, Mid-, and High-Band (mmWave)
As shown above, a cell tower broadcasting 600 MHz low-band spectrum would have a baseline radius of 1.00, meaning that its signals have the greatest range. As compared to 600 MHz, other low-band, mid-band, and high-band frequencies that are broadcast from cell towers do not travel as far, with their relative ranges as follows:
- 700 MHz: 86% of the cell tower range, relative to 600 MHz
- 800 MHz: 71% of the cell tower reach, relative to 600 MHz
- 2.0 GHz: 30% of the cell tower radius, relative to 600 MHz
- 2.5 GHz: 24% of the distance from a cell tower, relative to 600 MHz
- 3.7 GHz (C-band): 17% of the cell tower range, relative to 600 MHz
- Millimeter Wave (mmWave): 2% of the cell tower reach, relative to 600 MHz
Overall, lower frequency signals, like 600 MHz, reach a greater distance, providing cell towers with a larger coverage range (or radius). While higher frequency signals, such as 2.5 GHz, travel a much shorter distance before dissipating.
To reiterate this point, below is an illustration of how a cell tower using C-band (3.7 GHz) frequencies will only be able to transmit its signals 65% of the distance, relative to using 2.5 GHz frequencies.
Cell Tower Coverage Radius with 2.5 GHz and C-band (3.7 GHz)
Additionally, because higher frequency signals travel a shorter distance, the coverage footprint of cell towers using these frequencies will need to be denser (see right of image above), in order to provide the same level of service to customers.
Finally, spectrum influencing cell tower range is demonstrated below, using real-world coverage maps in a city environment, with cell towers broadcasting 600 MHz, 2.5 GHz, and 3.7 GHz (C-band) frequencies. The cell towers (white dots with blue rings) provide coverage (red indicates strong signal strength) over varying distances, depending on the frequency being used.
Cell Tower Coverage Maps with 600 MHz, 2.5 GHz, and 3.7 GHz (C-band)
READ MORE: 5G Spectrum Explained – Phones and Carriers
Network Capacity Shapes Cell Tower Radius
A wireless network is designed to meet a certain level of voice, video, and data traffic demand, as well as subscriber density. Because each signal transmission from a cell tower requires a certain amount of radio frequency, a wireless network’s capacity is limited by the amount of frequency that is available.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s (i.e., 20 to 25 years ago), when cell phones were used primarily to make phone calls, antennas could be placed on top of 300-foot cell towers that would transmit radio signals as far as 5 miles, providing coverage for the entire area. However, people began using their cell phones for more than just phone calls, specifically, for applications like texting, mobile internet, and e-mail – all of which used more data than voice services.
As a result, the radius that a cell tower could theoretically cover was still 5 miles, but only people in the first 2.5 miles could receive enough spectrum and thus, cellular service to their phones. Below is an analogy to further describe a cell tower’s shrinking radius:
A garden hose can transport water from one end to another. However, if holes are poked into that garden hose, then water will start to leak out. If enough holes are created at the beginning of the garden hose, then no water will make it to the end of that garden hose.
Similarly, if a cell tower transmits a radio signal, but people within the first portion of the structure’s radius are utilizing that signal, then the signal will not reach people on the outer edges of that cell tower’s transmission radius. In turn, a cell tower that could theoretically cover 5 miles, only serves people in the first 2.5 miles.
Cell Tower Radius – Signal Strength Curve
As cellular devices have become more advanced, using 4G LTE and 5G technology, the increasing demand for high-bandwidth applications and higher quality of service results in a shrinking range at which cell towers can transmit radio signals. As shown in the below signal strength curve, a cell tower’s radius reduces in tandem with the proliferation of advanced wireless handsets (i.e., smartphones):
Overall, as wireless networks have transitioned from 3G to 4G and 4G to 5G, the cell radius of each tower has narrowed. Indeed, this means that a cell tower which was previously capable of serving customers at a distance of 5 miles, can now efficiently serve only those customers at a distance of 2.5 miles or less.
How Far are Cell Towers from Each Other?
Due to cell tower radius shrinking, more cell towers have been built, particularly in major U.S. cities. This has resulted in most cell towers in urban environments being at a distance of 0.25 miles to 1 mile apart. Said differently, in cities, a cell tower’s radius has commonly shrunk to 0.25 miles, 0.5 miles, or 1 mile – instead of 2.5 miles or 5 miles historically.
Terrain Impacts How Far a Cell Tower Can Reach
Cell towers serve customers living across all different types of terrain, which can pose both natural and man-made obstructions. For example, natural elements such as mountains, hills, valleys, and trees can all block a cell tower’s radio signal. While man-made structures, such as buildings, can absorb or reflect radio signals, particularly in urban environments.
As such, tall cell towers, which can host antennas at high elevations, are particularly important for broadcasting radio signals across diverse landscapes. To this end, tall cell towers surrounded by flat terrain are capable of transmitting radio signals up to 45 miles (72 kilometers) in distance. In contrast, in mountainous or hilly terrains, the maximum range of a cell tower might only be a few miles.
Transmission Power Drives Cell Tower Range
A cell tower’s radio transmits a signal by driving a current through its antennas and the range of that signal is influenced by the power of the current. To avoid interference with nearby sites and for regulatory purposes, cell towers will often deliberately transmit radio signals at lower power levels, meaning that their radio signals do not reach as far.
As an example, CBRS (3.5 GHz) is a spectrum band with imposed power output limits because it has the potential to interfere with U.S. Navy radar systems in coastal areas. In turn, these power output limits reduce the range of CBRS spectrum.
As a result of these power limitations, CBRS spectrum is better suited to deployments on small cells or through in-building distributed antenna systems (DAS), rather than via cell towers.
How Far Does a 4G LTE Cell Tower Reach?
The range of a 4G LTE cell tower is 2 to 4 miles (3 to 6.5 kilometers) when transmitting low- and mid-band spectrum. Examples of the 4G LTE spectrum bands used by cell towers are Cellular (824 MHz to 894 MHz), SMR (854 MHz to 940 MHz), PCS (901 MHz to 941 MHz), AWS (1695 MHz to 2200 MHz), and WCS (2305 MHz to 2310 MHz).
What is the Range of a 5G Cell Tower?
The range of a 5G cell tower is 1 to 3 miles (1.6 to 5 kilometers) when transmitting low- and mid-band spectrum. Examples of the 5G spectrum bands used by cell towers are 600 MHz, 700 MHz, 850 MHz, 2.5 GHz, 3.5 GHz (CBRS), and 3.7 GHz (C-band).
What is the Range of a 5G Small Cell?
The range of a 5G small cell is 50 to 2,000 feet (15 to 600 meters) when transmitting high-band or millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, assuming no obstructions. Examples of the 5G spectrum bands used by small cells are 24 GHz, 27.5 GHz to 31 GHz, 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 47 GHz.
Small cells are low-powered cellular radio access points used for voice, video, and data transmission, which are designed to provide network coverage and capacity to smaller areas than cell towers.
Cell Tower (left) and Small Cell (right)
In terms of structure, small cells are typically placed at heights of less than 100 feet (30 meters) – and often closer to 20 feet (6 meters). They are installed outdoors on city infrastructure like streetlights, utility poles, light poles, and slim line poles.
How Many Square Miles Does a Cell Tower Cover?
A cell tower can cover 3 to 50 square miles, based on a typical coverage radius of 1 to 4 miles for 4G LTE and 5G cell towers. This coverage area assumes that the cell tower is equipped with a typical three-sided antenna array, which provides 360-degree coverage from the site.