Stealth Antennas Try to Blend In
In the world of wireless, figuring where to put those hulking cell towers creates a catch-22.
Cell-phone users want to be able to roam far and wide while getting crystal-clear reception. But extending and improving the quality of wireless transmissions requires new and taller antennas, and communities often balk at plans to erect more of those ugly metal towers.
It's forcing the wireless communications industry into stealth mode.
There are about 130,000 communications antennas in place across the United States, according to industry officials. Roughly 75 percent are standard antennas. The rest have been surreptitiously stashed in scenic simulations.
The next time you see a picturesque shot of rocks, a flagpole, a church steeple, cacti or trees, consider that there might be more there than meets the eye.
Many cities are now insisting that new wireless antennas be disguised as part of the natural or urban landscape.
Of course, not everyone loves the camouflaged contraptions. The antennas that are increasingly being tucked into church steeples have provoked particularly strong reactions.
But for others, almost anything is better than those old-fashioned metal monstrosities.
In Staten Island, New York, residents of the plush Todt Hill community were happy to see an 87-foot telecommunications tower replaced with a $1 million stealth lighthouse that encases a new 130-foot antenna.
"I've even seen people taking pictures of the lighthouse," said Anthony Pelligrano, a Staten Island resident. "It's kind of weird to have a lighthouse up here on the hill away from the water, but it's easier on the eyes than the old antenna was."
"We hide antennas everywhere: inside road signs, flagpoles, church crosses and windmills, just to name a few," said Sean McLernon, CEO of Stealth Network Technologies. "We can match almost any texture or structure, which means we can hide them anywhere and make them look just like what is there already."
Some installations do look uncannily real. A Yuma, Arizona, resident was stumped when asked by a local newspaper reporter if he knew what that "100-foot-tall thing behind your house is."
"That palm tree up there is a phony? For crying out loud. I can see it now. I can see the antennas. Well, I could see it before, but I didn't know what it was," Jerry Charlebois told the Yuma Sun.
Stealth antennas aren't always so well-disguised.
Take, for example, the 80-foot artificial pine tree planned for the grounds of Oahu's Kalihi Elementary School. If tropical Oahu harbored groves of tall pines, the structure might look as natural as any 80-foot metal and nylon tree could, say community members.
True stealth should mean people can't readily spot an antenna installation, said Steve Meyer, business development manager for the Larson Company's Camouflage division.
"The main idea is to blend the technology into whatever the surrounding environment has to offer," Meyer explained.
Larson Camouflage's Tucson, Arizona, parent company has spent decades building replica environments for clients such as Disney World and the Bronx Zoo. Larson developed the first stealth "tree" tower in 1992.
In Oahu, VoiceStream will pay the Kalihi school about $1,200 a month in rent if the planned pine tree is erected on school grounds. The financial benefits have obvious appeal for struggling schools and churches.
Industry experts figure about 500 U.S. churches currently provide sanctuary for antennas, which are usually encased in or tucked behind crosses on steeples.
Last summer the Archbishop's Council of the Church of England signed a contract to allow all of England's 16,000 churches to have mobile-phone antennas installed within their spires.
Concealing an antenna is expensive. The cheapest way to go is the basic flagpole, which adds $10,000 to $20,000 to the price of a tower. Trees cost double that amount. The more customized the installation, the higher the price.
But those in the industry say a stealth tower is often cheaper in the long run than battling communities mobilized against standard towers.