Incentive auction troubles: Older cell towers may buckle under weight of new 600 MHz equipment

As the FCC's incentive auction of TV broadcasters' unwanted 600 MHz spectrum licenses gets underway, a new concern is now facing the U.S. tower industry: Older cellular towers might not be able to handle the additional weight of new 600 MHz antennas and equipment.

C Spire CTO Stephen Bye acknowledged the situation during a recent appearance at the Competitive Carriers Associations' Mobile Carriers Show in Nashville. At the trade show, which is geared toward Sprint (NYSE: S), T-Mobile (NYSE:TMUS) and smaller and rural U.S. wireless carriers, Bye said some older cellular towers are at or near their weight limit and will require structural improvements before carriers can add new antennas and equipment to transmit data at 600 MHz. Bye said the situation is especially critical to carriers like C Spire that own their towers.

Maurice D'Souza, senior manager of Huawei's American carrier sales and marketing, agreed that the issue will be something that the U.S. tower industry will have to address. He explained that, despite continued advancements in cellular technology and equipment, the addition of new spectrum bands like 600 MHz will generally require tower companies to install new equipment on their towers. And that new equipment, D'Souza said, can have a major effect on taller, older towers already supporting a wide range of spectrum bands from 700 MHz to 2.5 GHz.

"There is no question there is a considerable number of towers out there at capacity and in need of future structural modifications," said Todd Schlekeway, executive director of the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE), in response to questions from FierceInstaller on the topic. "I hear this anecdotally from our member companies on a weekly basis. In fact, much of the post-incentive auction repacking/retrofitting work that will be done on broadcast structures will require structural modifications as these towers are generally older and some of them were built prior to new structural standards."

"Many cellular towers are also at capacity right now due to the heavier equipment associated with 4G networks [such as Remote Radio Units] and other larger antennas," he said.

Schlekeway said that NATE doesn't have specific data on the number of towers in the United States that may need to undergo structural improvements to support new spectrum bands. But he said "I can definitely verify with you, however, that structural analysis and modification work will be a primary service involved with post-incentive auction work on both cellular and broadcast structures."

To be clear, the issue may not affect the tower industry for months, or years, to come. Although the FCC is in the midst of the "reverse" portion of the 600 MHz incentive auction, where it will purchase unwanted spectrum from TV broadcasters, the agency isn't expected to start the "forward" portion of the auction until this summer, at the earliest. The forward auction will be where wireless carriers and others bid on the 600 MHz licenses.

Moreover, wireless service providers likely won't be able to use their newly acquired spectrum for years. That's primarily because the spectrum will have to be "repacked," or reassembled to make it available for mobile network operators while TV broadcasters are moved to other channels. The FCC has proposed a 39-month timeline for repacking, but that schedule has come under fire by TV broadcasters who say it simply doesn't provide enough time.

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