AT&T recently announced that it has signed an agreement with Crown Castle—one of the leading tower companies in the U.S.—that will “streamline” deployment on thousands of existing and new sites to accelerate the carrier’s efforts to build FirstNet and 5G systems.

“This agreement marks a significant milestone in our relationship with Crown Castle,” Susan Johnson, AT&T’s executive vice president for global connections and supply chain, said in a prepared statement. “It establishes a market-based framework and simplifies the lease management and administration process. This will allow us to streamline network projects to better serve our customers.”

Crown Castle owns, operates and leases more than 40,000 cell towers, according to an AT&T spokesperson. In addition, Crown Castle has been among the most aggressive tower companies in terms of securing sites—often on existing infrastructure like streetlights or buildings—for small cells that carriers need to create the dense and ultra-dense networks to support 4G LTE and 5G networks that provide users with high data rates and low-latency connections.

“We are pleased to expand our longstanding strategic relationship with AT&T,” said Mike Kavanagh, Chief Commercial Officer, Crown Castle. “We look forward to continuing to support AT&T’s growth by providing our infrastructure assets to meet their network needs for years to come.”

Specific of the agreement were not released, but the terms “generally simplify the overall structure and administration of the lease management process and establishes a market-based framework” in a manner that will help AT&T as it proceeds with building the nationwide public-safety broadband network for FirstNet, according to an AT&T spokesperson.

“This better supports our existing network, as well as building out new macro and small-cell sites,” the AT&T spokesperson said in an e-mail to IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “It will help improve efficiency as we deploy Band 14 [the 700 MHz spectrum licensed to FirstNet] on Crown Castle network infrastructure.”

Although details of the AT&T-Crown Castle deal have not been released, AT&T officials have been outspoken during the past year in expressing frustration with the traditional business model employed by tower companies and their desire to renegotiate “unsustainable” site-lease deals with tower companies like Crown Castle.

Some of the key issues cited by AT&T officials are additional charges that carriers must pay for accessing tower to upgrade equipment, even if the new equipment does not alter the footprint or structural integrity of the site. With AT&T planning to add gear at sites to support deployment of on a total of 60 MHz of WCS, AWS-3 and Band 14 spectrum during the next several years, such costs could prove to be very expensive for the carrier, according to industry observers.

“The model … that we want to move toward is what we call a real-estate model,” Scott Mair, AT&T’s senior vice president of network planning and engineering, said last June during a 5G conference hosted by Wells Fargo. “We want to rent or lease square footage or square inches on a tower and, within that space on the tower, be able to do what we need to do for our wireless infrastructure.

“We want to rent the space on that tower and be able to use it freely, and we are starting to work now with some new partners that are subscribing to that model, the real-estate model with better set of economics. We're talking with our current vendor tower partners around that model., and we hope we can get there, because that model sets us up on a more sustainable path. The partners that we have that are using that new model, we're going to be allocating sites to them.”