How much does it cost to build a cell tower, including site acquisition, zoning & permitting, structural analysis, direct materials like steel and concrete, and labor for site construction?
On average, the total cost to build a cell tower in the United States is $250,000, while in Western Europe it is $135,000, and in Latin America it is $110,000. Cell tower build costs can vary significantly depending on the site location and terrain, as well as the type and height of the tower.
Dgtl Infra provides an overview of the components of building a cell tower, details the cost in multiple geographic regions, and differentiates between monopole, lattice, guyed, stealth, and rooftop structures, while referencing data points from independent tower companies. Additionally, we answer key questions such as How Much Does it Cost to Build a 4G vs 5G Cell Tower? and Can you Build your Own Cell Tower?
What are the Components of Building a Cell Tower?
The physical cost of building a cell tower, including the necessary passive infrastructure, generally requires only a few components:
- Tower Structure: vertical structure, ranging from 100 to 400 feet in height, constructed of galvanized steel and built on a concrete foundation pad
- Land Parcel: an area that is either owned or rented (through a ground lease) by the tower structure owner. Typically, these land parcels range in size from 2,500 to 3,000 square foot plots
- Support: perimeter fencing, equipment shelter, tower & site lighting systems, and, in some cases, permanently installed diesel generators to help facilitate backup power for the site’s tenants
To the right is an illustration from American Tower (AMT) of the components of a cell tower. The tower structure and land parcel are controlled by AMT, while the tenant (TEN) owns the communications equipment.
As shown above, the tenant, which can be a wireless carrier like Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile, places their communications equipment onto the steel tower structure, but the cell tower owner does not own this communications equipment. To specify further, the cell tower owner does not need to build or buy the antenna, microwave, base station, or coaxial cable equipment.
How Much Does it Cost to Build a Cell Tower?
On average, the total cost to build a cell tower in the United States is $250,000, in Western Europe is $135,000, in Latin America is $110,000, in the Middle East is $87,500, in Africa is $90,000, in Indonesia is $42,500, in India is $42,500, and in China is $42,500.
Below is further detail on the low, high, and average cost to build a cell tower in 8 markets around the world:
Cost to Build a Cell Tower in Global Markets
|Market||Low Build Cost||High Build Cost||Average|
Notably, the table above highlights how, in certain markets, like China, India, and Indonesia, the average cost to build a cell tower is less than 20% of the cost to build in the United States. Factors including land prices, direct materials, and labor costs all contribute to these regional geographic variances.
Build Cost Breakdown
The total cost to build a cell tower can be broken down into three primary categories: pre-development, direct materials, and site construction costs:
- Pre-Development: site acquisition (land purchase), zoning & permitting, and structural analysis for the installation of communications equipment
- Direct Materials: steel, concrete, fencing, and lighting
- Site Construction: foundation installation, consisting of excavation, caissons, and the pouring of concrete to anchor the tower to the ground. Additionally, tower erection involves assembling and constructing the tower. Finally, access road clearing, grading, and paving provides an entry point to the site
Construction of the cell tower site can be completed within less than 3 months, from start to finish, requiring a project team of 5 to 7 people to be dispatched to the site.
Build Cost Breakdown for a Tower in the United States
Below is a breakdown of these three primary build cost items, using the example of a tower in the United States, which has a total cost to build range of $200,000 to $300,000:
|Cost Item||Low Build Cost||High Build Cost||Average||% of Total|
|Total Build Costs||$200,000||$300,000||$250,000||100%|
As shown above, pre-development costs comprise $40,000 to $60,000 per tower – equivalent to 20% of total build costs, while direct materials make-up $50,000 to $75,000 per tower – corresponding to 25% of total build costs, and site construction costs involve $110,000 to $165,000 per tower – equating to 55% of total build costs.
Types of Cell Tower Structures and their Build Costs
Cell tower build costs are also influenced by the type and height of the particular tower. To this end, typical heights for cell towers range from 100 to 400 feet, with some towers extending to 2,000+ feet.
In terms of type, ground-based cell towers can be built as either a self-supported or guyed structure. Within self-supported, there are two main types of structures, namely monopole and lattice.
Cell Tower Structures – Summary by Type
|Location||Urban / suburban||Urban / suburban /rural||Rural|
|Main Purpose||Telephony||Telephony||TV & radio broadcast|
|Site Area||2,500 sqft||2,500 to 10,000 sqft||Acres (40,000+ sqft)|
|Height||50 to 200 feet||200 to 400 feet||200 to 2,000 feet|
|Cost to Build||$||$$||$$$|
Monopole cell towers are free-standing tubular structures that are used primarily to address space constraints in urban and suburban areas or aesthetic concerns. Typically, monopole cell towers serve wireless carriers for the purposes of telephony, are sited on a tract of land of less than 2,500 square feet, and range from 50 to 200 feet in height.
Cost to Build
Monopoles require the least amount of land area to build and, in terms of height, are the smallest type of cell tower structure. In turn, monopole cell towers offer lower pre-development and direct material costs to build. However, given that monopoles are built in urban and suburban areas, their land prices, on a per square foot basis, are higher.
Although monopoles are a cost-effective solution, they often serve only a single-purpose and accommodate fewer tenants.
Lattice cell towers are the predominant structures in the communications industry. These structures taper from the bottom up and have three or four legs/sides of open-framed steel supports.
Usually, lattice cell towers serve wireless carriers for the purposes of telephony and are sited on a tract of land of up to 10,000 square feet, for a rural site, or less than 2,500 square feet, for an urban site. Overall, lattice cell towers typically range from 200 to 400 feet in height, but can sometimes reach heights of up to 1,000 feet.
Cost to Build
Lattice cell towers require more land and are taller structures than monopoles. Therefore, lattice cell towers have higher pre-development and direct material costs, which are offset by lower land prices, on a per square foot basis, given that these towers tend to be built in more rural areas.
Additionally, in terms of labor, lattice towers are more expensive because they have to be assembled in-place, creating higher labor costs. Therefore, in markets where labor costs are lower, such as emerging markets, lattice towers tend to be a more compelling solution.
Nevertheless, lattice cell towers have significantly more capacity available for additional antennas and heavy equipment loads, meaning that the increased use of these towers can be achieved at a lower incremental cost than monopoles.
Guyed cell towers gain their support capacity from a series of cables attaching separate levels of the tower to anchor foundations in the ground.
Normally, guyed cell towers serve television and radio broadcasters, providing digital television and radio (FM and AM) transmission services. These guyed cell towers are sited in rural areas, on tracts of land of up to 20 acres and typically range from 200 to 2,000 feet in height.
Cost to Build
Guyed cell towers require the most amount of land to build (i.e., multiple acres) and are generally the tallest, involving higher direct material costs to build. However, guyed towers have an efficient design, giving them economical total build costs.
At the same time, tower lighting is required for structures exceeding 200 feet above ground level (AGL) by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation. This means that a tower owner bears additional lighting costs for these taller guyed cell towers.
Still, similar to lattice cell towers, guyed structures offset some of their higher build cost by having greater capacity for additional tenants than monopoles.
Alternative Cell Tower Structures
Beyond monopole, lattice, and guyed structures, cell towers can take many forms such as stealth towers and rooftop sites.
Stealth towers, also known as disguised or camouflage, vary in terms of size and are generally used to maintain the aesthetic quality of an urban or suburban area. For example, a cell tower can be camouflaged to look like a palm tree, pine tree, church steeple, flagpole, clock tower, or water tower. Particularly, stealth towers are useful in areas with strict zoning regulations and are becoming more important as 5G antennas proliferate.
Cost to Build
Given the unique physical requirements of stealth towers, they have a higher cost to build. Still, tower companies will offset this higher cost by making their wireless carrier customers pay higher lease rates in these locations where cellular coverage is more difficult.
Rooftop sites are more common in urban areas where tall and dense buildings, as well as zoning restrictions, do not enable traditional ground-based towers to be built. Typically, rooftop sites require only a fraction of the space of ground-based towers, meaning as little as 50 square feet for each cell site installation. Also, they are smaller structures, ranging from only 10 to 100 feet in height.
In urban locations, multiple rooftop sites are often required because of high wireless traffic volume and density.
Cost to Build
Because rooftop sites are vertically smaller and take up a lesser footprint, their direct material costs are significantly less than ground-based towers to build. At the same time, given that rooftop deployments are sited on top of buildings, the tower company typically does not own/have to purchase the freehold for these sites.
Additionally, pre-development costs are usually lower for rooftop sites because zoning regulations generally permit installation of antennas on top of buildings.
Tower Companies – Build Cost Examples
To support the above-mentioned total cell tower build costs, Dgtl Infra references examples from some of the largest independent tower companies in the world, including American Tower, Crown Castle, SBA Communications, and IHS Holding.
American Tower owns 219,226 towers globally, of which 42,861 are located in the United States & Canada and 176,365 reside in international markets. The company provides the following ranges for its typical tower build costs in different regions:
- U.S. & Canada: $250,000 to $300,000 per tower
- Latin America: $85,000 to $170,000 per tower. Also, within Latin America, Brazil has a cost to build of $130,000 to $150,000 per tower
- Africa: $60,000 to $120,000 per tower
- Asia: $20,000 to $30,000 per tower
Crown Castle, which operates 40,159 towers exclusively in the United States, has previously noted that its tower build costs ranged from $200,000 to $250,000 per tower.
SBA Communications owns or operates 36,017 communication sites, 17,363 of which are in the United States and 18,654 that are located internationally.
Previously, the company stated that, on average, its tower build costs in the United States and Canada ranged from $250,000 to $275,000 per tower. Whereas SBA indicated that its tower build costs in Central America (e.g., Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama) were approximately $150,000 per tower.
IHS Holding has a portfolio of 38,975 owned and managed tower sites which span 7 countries in Africa, 3 countries in Latin America, and 1 country in the Middle East. The company states that its average cost to build in its markets in Africa and the Middle East is typically in the range of $75,000 to $100,000 per tower. While in Latin America, IHS’ average cost to build is typically in the range of $40,000 to $60,000 per tower.
How Much Does it Cost to Build a 4G vs 5G Cell Tower?
The key difference between 4G and 5G deployments on cell towers is that, with 5G, more and heavier equipment is being placed on towers, which means that cell towers must be capable of bearing a greater load, increasing their build costs. As shown below, this incremental 5G equipment includes additional antennas deployed for Massive MIMO, which can be as large as a refrigerator, and double the amount of fiber strands connected to antennas, which are needed for the purposes of backhaul.
5G Brings More and Heavier Equipment
Network densification in a 5G environment is causing more equipment, such as antennas and remote radio units, to be mounted on cell towers. While new technologies like Massive MIMO, which is being used to transmit mid-band 5G frequencies, results in heavier antennas being placed on cell towers. More specifically, a Massive MIMO antenna has many individual antennas embedded within it, which are all combined into one panel, making the antenna very large and heavy.
5G Equipment Means Cell Towers Must Bear a Greater Load
Cell towers have a certain amount of structural capacity in terms of i) wind loading and ii) weight of equipment:
- Wind Loading: antennas, when put next to each other, act as “sails”, catching the wind as it passes through. Therefore, as more 5G antennas are mounted at the top of a tower, more pressure is exerted on the tower structure from the wind
- Weight of Equipment: to transition wireless networks to 5G, wireless carrier tenants are putting more equipment and, in turn, more weight on cell towers
5G Equipment Load Increases Cell Tower Build Costs
To support more and heavier 5G equipment, newly built cell towers will need greater capacity from their foundation and structure:
- Foundation: stronger concrete foundation pad and footings
- Structure: steel crossbars, anchors, bolts, and guy wires
Overall, more and heavier 5G equipment increases a cell tower’s foundation and structure costs, making the cost to build a 5G cell tower greater than a 4G tower.
Can you Build your Own Cell Tower?
Cell tower construction requires engineering, general contracting, electrical, structural steel, and other specialty licenses. Therefore, you can either secure these licenses first or subcontract out portions/all of the cell tower build process to specialized third-party companies that focus on providing these services.
Below are further details on the process to build your own cell tower, which includes the pre-development phase, civil work, foundation installation, and tower erection:
Initially, you need to identify a place to construct a tower through a process called site acquisition. Subsequently, you can create site designs, construction models, development budgets, and critical path schedules, which cover the timing and costs throughout the phases of a project.
Prior to construction, you must obtain zoning and permitting approvals from local authorities as well as their national aviation administration, which in the United States is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In most jurisdictions in the United States, you will need a letter of intent (LOI) from a wireless carrier (e.g., Verizon) to secure approval for building a cell tower.
Additionally, you have to coordinate with an electric utility for power supply service to the site, as well as manage telecommunications service delivery to the site.
Tower construction involves a project team of 5 to 7 people that are dispatched to the site, where a temporary field office is often established.
At first, you will prepare the construction site by leveling the land, removing vegetation, building gravel or paved access roads, and installing fences. Additionally, you will conduct a sampling and analysis of soil and groundwater at the site to determine if there are any removal or remediation needs.
Next, you will build the tower foundation in order to anchor the tower to the ground, as well as construct the equipment pad to support the future tenant’s shelter. This process involves excavation, caissons, and the pouring of concrete.
Finally, you will assemble and erect the tower using primarily a crane and other lifting equipment, as applicable, such as a forklift and boom truck.
Additionally, you will place an equipment shelter on to the ground/concrete pad, from the prior foundation installation phase.
Electricity is installed either during the tower erection process or after the tower has been constructed. This allows for the fit-out of lighting to maximize the visibility of the tower.
Construction of the tower typically takes less than one month. Overall, this results in completion of the total site within less than three months, from start to finish, meaning the cell tower goes into service.