US Approach to Cellular Towers is Wrong

by Colin Berkshire

Why is the US cellular system among the worst in the world?

My experience is that when I travel to other countries is that there are no dropped calls, there are no coverage gaps, and speeds are remarkably faster than in the US. Prices are lower, too!

Telephone service, speeds, and coverage are better in Thailand, Vietnam, even rural China. It is also 2x-5x as much in the US as in Asia?

I would love to get a straight answer to those questions.

My phone service in Thailand costs 30 Baht (99₵) a month for my number and 99 Baht ($3) for a gigabyte of data. I pay for only what I use. Something is seriously wrong with the US Cellular industry.

One theory, the towers.

US Cellular companies take a radically different approach to towers than in Asia.

cellular antenna detailed
US towers are massive, ginormous structures. US Companies try to place as few of these costly beasts as possible and they try to stretch them as far as possible.
In contrast, in Asia my cell phone may have coverage available from 100 or 200 towers simultaneously. Asian towers are little pre-packaged kits that require almost no engineering.
The typical tower installation scenario in Asia is like this: “Hi. We would like to give your small shop free internet service. All we want is to place this small sick-on box in the corner of your window.” Shopkeeper says “yes” and a week later the local ISP brings in a line and runs it to the box stuck to the window. The shop gets free WiFi and the cellular company gets yet one more tower site. The tower company needs no engineering, pays the shop no money (beyond the free internet), and there are cell towers everywhere!
The other notable is that throughout much of Asia, tower roaming is mandatory if your primary carrier cannot serve you adequately. When you roam, your cell company must pay the company you roam to a fee for usage. It balances out pretty much. But like greedy kids trying to optimize their take, cell companies are highly motivated to fill in every little gap so that they receive the imbalance payments, rather than paying them.
So what is the math on a US Tower?*
  • The average owner of a tower site received between $1,500 and $3,000 monthly in rent.
  • The average revenue per cell tower is $70,655 per month.
The US companies are twice stupid/greedy:
  1. They pay too much for ginormous towers when smaller ones would be cheaper and better
  2. At $847,860 a year in revenue, they should be installing them as fast as humanly possible.
It’s a towering problem!