• U.S.

Environment: Cellular’s New Camouflage

7 minute read
Julie Rawe

“Can you hear me now?” Not too well if you’re using a cell phone near the top of Massachusetts’ Mount Watatic. That’s because state officials, eager to protect this pristine peak from unsightly antennas, agreed to buy it for $2.5 million last summer. In the town-by-town battle between improving cell-phone coverage and preserving precious skylines, few places have had the resolve–not to mention the resources–of Mount Watatic’s neighbors. But such aversion to tower building is becoming the norm in cities and suburbs across the country. From Lakeland, Fla., to Winnetka, Ill., more and more communities are demanding some sort of antenna concealment. Even Microsoft’s tech-friendly hometown, Redmond, Wash., requires that new towers be camouflaged in residential areas.

Suburban stonewalling was a hot topic at the wireless industry’s recent Tower Summit and Trade Show in New Orleans. “Wireless companies have already paid the Federal Government over $20 billion for licenses that are tied up in local disputes,” lamented Laura Altschul, government affairs director for T-Mobile USA. “We need to break the logjam in residential areas.” To speed the process, the Bush Administration is trying to give the industry unfettered access to the public right of way. Municipalities could lose control over tower siting along major roads, but it’s unlikely that citizens will have no say in what happens along the edges of their yards.

Even if the feds step in, the only way tower builders are moving into cell-phone-rich, aesthetically guarded communities is through camouflage. Sprint PCS recently agreed to pay an estimated $150,000 to fix up–and wire up–a century-old windmill in a ritzy section of Fairfield, Conn. The mansions there have lousy cellular reception because well-heeled neighbors don’t want a tower in their backyard. “We’ve got millionaires sitting in their driveways just so they can use their cell phones,” says an exasperated resident.

The number of so-called stealth towers, which have been around for a decade, has doubled since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 first prevented local jurisdictions from shutting out wireless carriers altogether. Of the roughly 128,000 cellular-antenna sites in the U.S., about 75% are mounted on towers in the traditional (read: ugly, obtrusive) sense. The rest have been tucked inside steeples and flagpoles, on rooftops and water towers and in giant fake trees adorning rarefied real estate from Virginia’s Mount Vernon to California’s Hearst Castle. Even Pebble Beach’s hallowed golf course is reportedly considering installing high-tech replicas of gnarled cypress trees.

Although tower building has fallen off more than 70% since the late ’90s, business is holding steady at major camouflage shops, with San Diego’s TeleFlage enjoying a 75% sales increase this year. Cash-strapped carriers are still willing to cough up the extra 15% to 20% that it costs to hide an antenna in a high-rent neighborhood.

With half of Americans now using cell phones, the novelty and convenience of these gadgets have given way to frustration over patchy service and dropped calls. The need to improve network coverage in hard-to-zone locales has led to thousands of remarkably symmetrical pines, palms and cacti; fake chimneys and air-conditioning huts; ersatz silos and water towers home to no liquid or grain. One company raised the roof of a McDonald’s to conceal some antennas. Another stashed wireless gear inside signs for BP stations and Red Roof Inns. The camouflage unit of Valmont Industries, based in Omaha, Neb., received a request for a 115-ft. saguaro cactus, which would have been triple the plant’s natural height. “You’d turn around and run if you saw something like that,” says the company’s tree specialist, Jim Casqueiro. The solution: split the coverage area and build two 50-footers instead.

The cheapest stealth design, a stocky flagpole with room inside for antennas, accounts for roughly half the camouflage market and adds $10,000 to $20,000 to the price of a tower. Trees cost double or triple that amount. “You pretty much blow your profit margins on camouflage,” says Jim Fryer, the industry’s chief data tracker, who runs TowerSource.com “But if you can close the deal and not have to go through another year of zoning battles, it’s probably worth it.”

So far, the business of utility concealment has attracted only a dozen or so players. Industry leader Larson Camouflage, whose parent company in Tucson, Ariz., has spent decades building fake habitats for such clients as Disney World and the Bronx Zoo, developed the first “tree” tower in 1992. TeleFlage founder Nancy Tuggle got into the business after serving on a planning board in a San Diego suburb that nixed a proposed tower in someone’s backyard. She directed PacBell to a nearby school and six years later is forming a coalition of camouflagers to help companies expand their networks by educating the public about alternative tower designs. “With concealment as an option, it doesn’t seem so bad,” she says.

Go-betweens like Tuggle are trying to make suburbs less hostile territory for tower builders. PlanWireless.com’s Ted Kreines has taken a different approach. Dozens of communities have adopted his tiered-application system, which streamlines permit approval for small, inconspicuous antennas and screeches it to a halt for big, ugly ones. “If you go low, we’ll help you,” he tells tower builders. “If you go high, God help you.”

Kreines is also trying to help towns get their share of wireless wealth. He advises officials on how much to charge for space on water tanks and how to find the stealthiest towers–the ones built without a permit. When Florida’s Alachua County completed its first antenna inventory in 1999, it uncovered $1.5 million in new tax revenues.

But the biggest money-maker for cities could come with a system upgrade to third-generation (3G) wireless technology (if and when that happens). To fill in cellular-service gaps and accommodate massive data transmissions, antennas will need to be closer to the ground and to one another. Utility poles are already home to thousands of bread-box-size microcells in California. And as every streetlight becomes a possible antenna site, Kreines wants wireless providers to pay local jurisdictions for using the right of way.

As public-utility execs start to wake up to their potential role in the wireless revolution, ailing tower companies are starting to head indoors. SpectraSite, a Cary, N.C., firm that filed for bankruptcy this month, is installing distributed-antenna systems inside malls, airports and other big buildings largely sealed off from outside airwaves. Using credit-card-size antennas and existing fiber-optic-cable networks to provide perfect indoor coverage, these wireless systems mimic landlines by offering universal access to the infrastructure and charging individual carriers for customer use. There are more than 1,000 tiny antennas up and running in Las Vegas hotels, where mini-camouflage is already in full swing. LGC Wireless of San Jose, Calif., has artfully blended in these cell sites with ceiling frescoes at the Venetian Casino Resort. Those who are worried about the health risks associated with these ubiquitous low-powered antennas might be reassured to know that LGC’s newest client is the very institution that approved their safety, the fcc.

Even as the next generation of wireless equipment calls for ever shrinking antennas, tall towers will probably avoid extinction by offering fixed-wireless service in rural areas where other high-speed Internet access isn’t available. Meanwhile, AT&T Wireless and Cingular are building a joint network along 3,000 miles of highway in the Midwest and West. That includes a lot of wide open spaces where there’s no place to hide. –With reporting by Jyl Benson/New Orleans

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