Is that a pine tree? Or a cellphone tower? ‘Stealth’ structures multiply as wireless technology grows
Fort Lauderdale, Fla. –Tiffany Crump sat outside of a pizza place near the Deerfield Beach city hall recently and thumbed her cellphone. Across the street, a large clock tower loomed over her shoulder.
Crump eats lunch at the pizza place every week and has often felt that the yellow tower looks out of place. She figured it was historical — a designated landmark to hint at what the neighborhood looked like decades ago. She was shocked to learn its true purpose: to inconspicuously provide a signal to the cellphone cradled in her palm.
“That’s a cellphone tower?” she said. “Shut up. Oh my God.”
For over two decades, bulky steel cellphone towers and antennas have been camouflaged in plain sight across the U.S. According to industry professionals the practice, known as stealthing or concealment, is likely to continue as our demands for cellphone service and data continues to grow.
In South Florida, hundreds of these stealth towers and antennas take the form of pine trees, flagpoles, light poles, traffic lights, stadium lights and clock towers. There is even one disguised as a large cross in the parking lot of a West Palm Beach Baptist church.
Matt Alvarez, the general manager of a tower assembly company in Pompano Beach, put it together in 2010. He said his company has assembled dozens of these stealth structures in the years since.
Alvarez, like other industry professionals, said the demand for new cellphone towers and antennas increased tremendously in the early 2000s, when everyone began to walk around with a phone in their pocket. Before that, tall steel cellphone towers were mostly placed in industrial and rural areas, hidden from residents who found them a sore sight.
But a combination of factors including more cellphones, more demand for data and more development has resulted in a need to find creative ways of building new towers and antennas over the last decade or so. Often, those new towers must encroach upon once-sacred residential and retail areas in South Florida.
Without stealth towers and antennas, meeting those demands would transform our streets into a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
“You would just have all these big galvanized steel structures everywhere,” Alvarez said. “Nobody wants to see that.”
Across South Florida, municipal codes for local cities tend to encourage the use of stealth towers and antennas – if a tower must be built at all.
When large cellular carriers like Sprint, Verizon or AT&T look to expand their coverage area or fill in identified gaps, most municipal codes call for carriers to try to place their equipment in existing cellphone towers, which can often hold equipment for up to four or five carriers at once. After that, the code pushes carriers to identify rooftops or other existing buildings in which they can add smaller, hidden antennas.
If a new tower must be built, cities push for carriers and the tower companies – which generally purchase or lease the land and fund construction of the tower – to build in industrial areas. If they must build in a residential area, a stealth tower is often explicitly preferred.
In Boca Raton, for example, stealth towers are the next best choice after using existing structures. In Parkland, the municipal code specifies that if a new tower must be built in a residential area, it must be a stealth tower. In Fort Lauderdale, stealth towers are close behind small cell tower designs, which can either attach to existing light poles and traffic lights or call for the addition of new light poles.
Anthony Fajardo, director of the Department of Sustainable Development for Fort Lauderdale, said a new stealth tower hasn’t been built in the city for close to five years. He said the city prefers using light poles and traffic lights, which require more structures that are closer together, but are more conspicuous than trees or flagpoles that can scale upwards of 60 feet into the sky.
“Generally speaking, people care about the height of these things,” Fajardo said.
The first disguised tower
Andrew Messing, president of Larson Valmont, one of the largest producers of stealth towers and antennas, said his Arizona-based company completed the very first disguised tower in 1992 in Denver. At the time, the company was known as Larson and had made a name for itself creating fake trees, rocks, canyons and other artificial environments for theme parks, casinos, resorts and museums.
Messing said Sprint was trying to get a cellphone tower approved in the early 1990s in Denver, but the local jurisdiction didn’t want an ugly tower to ruin its vistas. Sprint approached Larson and suggested they help the carrier make the tower look like a pine tree.
After that first project, Messing said the company inadvertently helped create a whole new industry. By 2005, the company began to focus exclusively on designing stealth towers and antennas.
Their designs expanded to variations of trees like elm trees, cypress trees and palm trees. In Northern California, they created faux wood water tanks. A popular model in desert climates is a cactus with 10,000 hand-painted needles.
In South Florida, Messing said palm trees don’t work because the trees are shorter and our state is too flat to provide the right height they need to be effective. He said flagpoles are a popular model, as well as pine trees. The company has also created faux roof attachments, like the chimneys attached to the rooftop of the Breakers Hotel and Resorts in Palm Beach.
“Our motto is, you dream it and we’ll build it,” Messing said.
Messing said most designs start as 3D models. Artisans then work to create faux materials such as bark. Painting stealth structures is an art in itself, he said, and sometimes gray paint is used to give structures like trees a weathered look. “You don’t want a tree to look like it was just born yesterday,” he said.
With each design, he said, the goal to make the tower as invisible as possible.
Although the industry is growing today — Larson was recently acquired by one of the larger infrastructure companies in the country and is now known as Larson Valmont — Messing said that in the beginning stealth towers and antennas were often a last resort.
According to him it is about 30% cheaper to build a traditional steel cellphone tower and many cellphone tower companies and carriers would go the stealth route only if a local jurisdiction required them to do so. Today, however, he said many carriers and tower companies automatically look for stealth options particularly in residential areas because they know it will speed up the approvals process.
“Carriers and the local jurisdictions realize that in order to satisfy people’s demands for greater connectivity, it is necessary to have many more towers out there,” said Messing. “Disguising them is a way to alleviate the potential for visual pollution.”
The future of stealth
Alvarez, who has been assembling and maintaining stealth towers across South Florida for 15 years, estimates that there are hundreds of stealth towers and antennas in the region. He, as well as other industry professionals, expects that number to dramatically increase with the transition to 5G wireless technology.
Alvarez said that although 5G will bring faster speeds, it requires more towers and antennas than previous iterations of wireless technology because the signal’s frequency does not travel as far. Instead of miles apart, sites will need to be hundreds of feet apart.
According to CTIA, a trade organization representing the U.S. wireless communications industry, there were just over 300,000 large and small scale cellphone towers and antennas in operation by the end of 2018 in the country.
Crown Castle, one of the larger tower building companies in the country, said it operates over 2,000 large towers and over 6,000 small cell sites in Florida alone. The company expects that number to grow, as does everyone else in the industry as a result of increased wireless demand.
A spokeswoman for Verizon said the company expects wireless data use to grow five times greater by 2021 than what is used today.
“To meet – and stay ahead of – rising demand for mobile data, we are using small cells to deliver the coverage, capacity and network reliability to users where they need it most,” the spokeswoman said.
Crump, sitting across the street from what she once believed was an innocent tower in Deerfield Beach, said she understands the need for more antennas and towers. “I’m not opposed to that at all,” she said.
However, she does find the fact that there are so many hidden ones around her — with plans for even more — sort of sneaky. Crump, who studies Urban Design at FAU and has read up on city planning, said she is also doesn’t particularly like the term “stealth.”
“That type of vocabulary is concerning as it reminds me of military tactics used to spy on the public,” she said. She said that a good middle ground would be a sign, or some kind of plaque on hidden antennas and structures. “To let people know.”
The clock tower across the street from her did have a plaque. A small, bronze one that looked weathered as if to denote a historic event or figure.
It read, “Dedicated to the Citizens of Deerfield Beach by Sprint PCS.”