Cell Towers

Cell towers are increasingly common throughout the US. Close proximity to cell towers has been found to reduce property values and the health effects of RF radiation exposure emitted from cell towers remains unclear.

Aaron Baker

May 7, 2021 • Updated May 10, 2023 • 4 min read
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Cell towers, also known as cellular base stations, are raised structures that support antenna and transceivers that communicate with mobile devices.  The equipment used to transmit the signal back and forth to mobile devices is called a cell site and, in most cases, a single tower holds multiple sets of equipment or cell sites.  A cellular or mobile network is a communication network that includes individual cells where the last link between mobile devices and cell towers is wireless.  The size of each cell depends on population density and topography that may block signals.  For example, in flat, rural areas cell sizes can have a radius of 10-50 km while in a more densely populated urban or mountainous area they are typically 1-10 km.  Each cell consists of 1-3 cell towers that use radiofrequency (RF) waves to connect to individual mobile phones and devices.  

Cell towers and mobile phones and devices use radiofrequency (RF) waves in the range above FM radios and below microwave ovens and radar.  Lower frequencies closer to FM radio waves can travel further while higher frequencies travel shorter distances.  The use of cells in a cellular network allows frequencies to be used simultaneously in multiple cells as long as the cells are not adjacent and are far enough away that the signals do not interfere with each other.  Because frequencies can be used simultaneously, the cellular network design allows a vast number of mobile devices to be used with a limited number of frequencies.

There are currently about 250,000 cell towers in the US.  Most cell towers are between 50-200 feet tall.  Towers over 200 feet require registration with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  There are a wide variety of cell tower types including self-supporting towers, guyed towers, monopole towers, and concealed towers.  Concealed towers are designed to blend into the surrounding environment and have been designed to resemble trees, water towers, signs, flagpoles, cacti, bell towers, and church steeples.

The 5G network utilizes higher frequency millimeter-waves (mmWave) in addition to the lower frequencies used by the 4G network.  Because the range and ability to pass through solid objects of these high band waves is much lower, this is expected to require a significant increase in the number of cell sites--possibly over 500 per square mile in densely populated areas.  Many of these are expected to be small and will be mounted on existing structures including buildings, signs, and light posts.

You and Cell Towers#

Health and Safety#

The RF waves that cell towers use to communicate with mobile devices are a form of non-ionizing radiation.  This means that the radiation does not have enough energy to change the structure of an atom.  As a result, non-ionizing radiation does not cause damage to DNA which could potentially lead to cancer in the way that ionizing radiation like x-rays and UV rays can.

While RF is a safer type of radiation, there is evidence to suggest it may not be completely safe.  Based on a review of research published through 2011 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies RF radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”  In contrast, based on a review of 125 studies published between 2008-2018, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that there is insufficient evidence to support a causal association between RF radiation exposure and cancer.

The additional cell towers and cellular base stations that will be required to support a 5G network may increase the risk of exposure to high levels of RF radiation.  A 2020 analysis of a proposed 5G network in downtown Austin, Texas, suggests that adding cellular base stations that utilize the higher frequency millimeter-wave (mmWave) band to the existing network to support 5G may increase radiation levels beyond acceptable levels.  Although similar concerns have been expressed by other researchers, a review of over 100 studies by a team from the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency found no confirmed evidence that 5G RF waves are hazardous to human health.  Most experts, including the researchers from Australia,  agree that further research is needed on the effects of the 5G network on human health.

Property Values#

The research on the possible effect of cell towers on property values is extensive.  In general, proximity to a cell tower appears to have a negative effect on property values.  A study from the University of South Alabama analyzed over 23,000 home sales in Mobile County, Alabama relative to their proximity to cell towers.  The researchers found that homes within 0.72 km of a cell tower decreased in value an average of 2.65%.  In addition, if the cell tower was visible from the property, then the properties decreased an average of 9.78%.  A similar study in Kentucky found that properties within 1,000 feet of a cell tower sold for 1.82% less than a similar property located 4,500 feet away.

What You Can Do #

The FCC recommends a maximum RF radiation exposure level to the general public of approximately 580 microwatts per square centimeter.  This limit is many times greater than RF levels typically found near the bases of cell towers.  Because RF radiation disperses and rapidly decreases with distance, following posted advisories and staying away from the bases of cell towers will reduce RF exposure.

AreaHub’s Knowledge Center is updated regularly and provides information drawing upon scientific studies and sources.

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