The Trouble with Cellular Towers

— September 06, 2006

Wireless service providers have long faced a dilemma when it comes to the towers that help transmit calls. Customers want seamless coverage -- except they don't want the coverage-boosting cellular towers in their backyards.

Two main concerns typically arise. For starters, towers can be just plain ugly, and residents don't want to see property values dragged down. Then there are questions about possible health risks associated with exposure to radiation emitted from the equipment.

The San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union (SNAFU) is among the many organizations across the U.S. fighting to keep carriers from placing towers too close to neighborhood schools, hospitals, and playgrounds.

Time for 'Stratellites'?

Until and unless more research helps clarify the issue, there may be little that mobile-phone companies can do to allay some people's health concerns. That is "not a concern that will go away," says Doug Loranger, a SNAFU spokesperson and producer of the documentary Bad Reception: The Wireless Revolution in San Francisco .

But there's a lot that service providers can do to alleviate the aesthetic concerns. For years, they've tried to dress up unsightly towers as trees and other foliage. Companies have hidden antennas in crosses and buried them in storefront signs.

Now comes Bob Jones, president of Sanswire Networks, who's pushing the idea of "stratellites" that would house cellular antennas in computerized blimps hovering 12 to 13 miles above Earth. According to Jones, the blimps would be a more efficient way to give widespread coverage to customers, while keeping the source hidden.

Testing Needed

Wireless companies aren't exactly embracing the blimp concept with open arms. Cingular Wireless, the biggest U.S. mobile phone company, already has 47,000 towers in operation in the U.S. "Cell-phone service, reliability, and sound quality" are the priority, says Cingular spokesman Ritch Blasi.

The company isn't planning to consider a change to blimp coverage before any new technology is tested and proven to work just as well as current cellular towers, he says.

Meantime, the carriers have plenty of other ways to conceal antennas. Larson Camouflage in Tucson, Ariz., counts Cingular, Sprint Nextel, and Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile among its clients.

Says Larson Camouflage president Andrew Messing, his company works with the carrier and the local site to make sure it seamlessly blends in with the surroundings, whether it's a 200-foot grain silo in Illinois or a church cross in California.

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