It's a flagpole, it's a palm tree . . . no, it's a phone system.
Steve Meyer knows he's done his job right when no one notices his work.
That is, when someone passes by one of his palm trees or cacti without realizing they are made of concrete - or that they are cell towers or switches in disguise.
"My biggest joy in cell tower camouflage is that I get to beautify areas for everyone to enjoy," says Meyer, whose firm, The Larson Co., also builds faux landscapes for zoos and theme parks. "No one needs to know that beautiful landscape has anything to do with cell phones."
About a quarter of the estimated 130,000 cellular towers across the U.S. are camouflaged, some as trees, others as flagpoles and still others as church steeples. Hiding the towers is a tricky but essential part of many wireless companies' strategies. After all, how do you hide something that stands 80 or 100 feet tall? Especially as carriers' expansion plans have led from building towers mainly in the rural areas where no one cared what they looked like to raising them in more populous areas where "not in my backyard" fights have become commonplace.
Wireless providers try to strike a balance between supplying superior cell coverage and maintaining the natural environment. It's not always easy, because the costs of disguising a cell phone tower in a municipality can skyrocket when materials and monthly leases come into play.
For example, AT&T Wireless has about 25,000 cell sites, some of which are disguised, but the company says it's a challenge.
"While we try hard to work with communities to meet their needs, disguising towers tends to increase the costs for cell siting, which could impact the cost of providing service," says Ritch Blasi, director of media relations at AT&T Wireless.
Getting concept and financial support from the wireless provider is critical, says Peter Sturdivant, a stealth consultant and agent for Stealth Concealment Solutions in Charleston, S.C. Sturdivant, whose company constructs and camouflages cell phone towers on the East Coast, says he bases his cell tower disguises on how much time and money a cell company is willing to spend.
"The best bang for the dollar is a flagpole, but that doesn't give us many creative options," he says.
Sturdivant would rather spend the time and money to build a work of modern art and architecture in an urban or rural community. He says the process involves first walking around an area and finding the highest point to place a tower. Once the designer feels he picked a good spot in terms of radio frequency, many meetings with local officials follow.
Gaining the right to build within a church tower or steeple about 70 feet tall can cost carriers about $100,000 before construction even begins. With a monthly rent or lease charge going to the church and working to maintain the structure's unique charm, telecom companies can spend more than $1,000 per month per tower and can wait from six months to two years from inception to see a project come to fruition.
Once the municipality and the carrier agree on the location, Sturdivant's fun starts.
"Working with a historic building is the best because you can look at old blueprints and match today's work with the work that was done 200 or 300 years ago or more," he says.
He says he enjoys building cell towers into churches, which in the Northeast were often built on hills because they represented the center of town hundreds of years ago. He has done 30 such projects and each has involved their own challenges, such as maintaining architectural integrity, especially of older buildings. Performing that type of masonry reconstruction and structure restoration helps him tap his architectural interests.
"It ranges from gothic to Romanesque to modern, and I try to find as many original drawings as I can to work from" he says.
For The Larson Co.'s Meyer, the disguises include rocks and cacti to mask cell antennas and switches. He says simulating the deserts, palm trees and more barren landscapes of the Southwest differs from locating a site in the Northeast.
"We can't put as many branches on a palm tree, as say a pine tree, so we have to get more creative in how we hide the technology," Meyer says.
Of course, not all the towers are well-hidden, a real sore point for camouflage experts.
Towers need to top between 80 or even 100 feet to clear tree line in many parts of the country, but carriers looking to keep costs down will limit the number of palm fronds or pine branches on a fake tree.
"When your lowest branch is at 60 feet, it looks pretty obvious and it just isn't aesthetically pleasing," Meyer says.
"My favorite question, is 'What type of tree can we use to put in a 170-foot tower?' " Sturdivant says. "Look around; do you see any 170-foot trees? Something like that will grab attention and not in a good way."
Sturdivant cites one cell tower masquerading as a phony tree along Route 90 in Massachusetts near the Charlton Plaza.
"It's one of the ugliest towers I've ever seen. It looks like an upside-down Christmas tree or a massive bottle brush," Sturdivant says. "It's not one of ours. I'm not going to be involved with anything ugly or cheap.
"There really isn't a telltale sign to spot a good stealth tower," he says.
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