What would you rather have: crappy mobile phone service, or mobile towers scarring every visible surface? The two are at odds, but, thankfully, there are companies whose entire business is making those radio-wave spreaders disappear. And they're great at it.
We don't want to see the angular metal giants that serve us bandwidth. The feeling is echoed by city ordinances across the country, similarly motivated to hide the mobile-service food chain.
Thank Southern California for keeping up appearances. In the mid '90s, places like LA started requesting cell towers that weren't quite as unsightly. To blend in with the natural (and sometimes unnatural) surroundings, mobile carriers built their towers there to look like trees - mostly high-stretching palms that kinda sorta concealed their purpose. "In the beginning, what they called trees were just horrendous," says Chameleon Engineering's general manager Rienk Ayers. The blending-in technologies were just getting started, but they ended up pleasing the neighbours, which was the important thing. Keep in mind that this was early in the game, when mobile providers needed to get in quickly. They were happy shelling out a lot of money to get up good-looking towers (where required) as fast as possible.
After that, it became a thing. Slowly city ordinances started requiring that mobile carriers make their towers discrete, and carriers, needing the go ahead, started paying other companies to work on a disguise. Today, about half of concealed cell towers are dressed as trees, according to Ayers, because their form is the most inherently well designed for the job. Think about it: They satisfy the height requirement, multiple antenna arrays can be tucked under leaves, and a trunk is a great wire-concealing case.
All models need to withstand wind and earthquakes, so the main structure is typically steel-based, coated with some kind of artificial bark, which ranges from brown paint to stuff cast from a trunk mould. The high end, says Ayers, "is pretty phenomenal, though most people don't get close enough to appreciate it". But in the concealment game, it's really all about the leaves. Companies like Chameleon Engineering inject plastic into a frond mould over a fibreglass spine, and then the foliage is painted and treated to look like the real thing. Up to 12 antennas can be set between the green fans, and the impressive attention to detail acts as an invisibility cloak.
Not all towers need to tower, though, and geography tends to dictate taste. "In Saint Louis, they like flag poles," says Steve Caldwell, VP of engineering at TowerCo. The poles don't reach as high as trees and they hold fewer antennas, but they blend in better with the neighbourhood. Companies that do this kind of thing also whip up cell service in the form of water towers, rocks, steeples, cactuses, crosses and lampposts, too. Ayers is currently working on a concealer to match a copper-domed roof; Instead of looking like something, he's tasked with making it look like nothing.
But crafty covers are certainly not the norm. More often than not, carriers practice a well, if we have to method of dealing with ordinances because costumes are expensive and require a lot of upkeep. So while they're around, they're not everywhere. Here's hoping we won't be seeing many more of them soon.
Rachel Swaby is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. Check her out on Twitter.
Photo of cell tower tree courtesy TowerCo.