Cell Site Leases in the Future

Cellular history

I remember the first time I saw a mobile phone.  It was circa 1987 and it belonged to a sports agent that was visiting a couple of friends of mine who happened to be college athletes.  I drove them to the airport in my Honda Prelude to pick him up for lunch.  As he stepped off the private plane into my back seat I remember asking him “why he had two brief cases?”  He replied “oh no, the second one is my phone.”  At that moment I knew my buddies were going to sign with him – some guys just can’t resist a big battery. 

The cellular industry has come a long way since then.  The briefcase phone became the bag phone which evolved into the brick phone, then the flip-phone, the camera phone and now the smart-phone. Just as the handset has evolved so has the network – from analog to digital to 2.5G, to 3G…  And cell sites have evolved too.  From the first one at Soldier Field in Chicago and remote mountain top sites, to tall towers and the tallest building in town, to monopoles and lower roof-tops to light poles.  Shelters at cell sites have become cabinets and even suit-cased sized boxes. 

Cellular Future

If we look forward we will see that the iPhone is just the beginning.  The embedded wireless device is about to change it all again.  We are rapidly approaching a world where we’ll have hidden wireless devices inside everyday items such as HVAC, appliances, medical devices, even our dogs.  Farmers will remotely control their irrigation systems with apps on the smartphones, heart-monitors will notify you and your doctor before your heart fails.  Disposable, one-use-only devices will automatically reorder household items when packages are empty.  We are limited only by our own creativity.

But this post-modern technology won’t run on the current networks.  4G networks and beyond require more cell-splitting and lower rad centers. Cabinets and boxes are becoming remote radio heads.  And, while we will still have a lot of towers in rural and sub-urban areas, DAS and picocells on the side of buildings and light poles will sustain capacity in urban and dense urban markets. 

What about cell site leases?

You can’t have a technological explosion like this without updating the underlying cell site leases as well.  We are already seeing a large jump in the number of modifications to existing sites – many of which require amendments to the underlying leases.  These requests are coming at a more rapid pace than we have ever seen.  And the number of cell sites – particularly in urban areas – is about to significantly increase.

Let’s be smart about how we negotiate new and amended lease documents!  These deals need to be flexible and cost effective to sustain this rapid growth.  Expansion and modification rights must be ongoing, rents must be manageable for the long haul.  And cellular operators should rethink how they manage their massive real estate portfolios.  As we enter into the age of outsourced network administration, lease administration is a non-core function that should optimized too.

In short, as we approach 2011, let’s keep up with the times and rethink how cell site leases are negotiated and managed.