As Data Use Expands, More 'Stealth' Cell Towers Popping Up In Metro Phoenix

By  Jimmy Jenkins
Published: Friday, October 6, 2017 - 7:15am
Updated: Sunday, October 8, 2017 - 3:33pm

A stealth cell tower in Scottsdale.
(Photo by Jimmy Jenkins - KJZZ)

A giant cell tower camouflaged like a palm tree is peeking out over the other trees near the corner of Hayden and Camelback Roads in Scottsdale.

Scott September handles site development for AT&T. He said it's called it a stealth tower.

“It has an epoxy finish on the steel pole to give it some depth. It also has palm fronds to hide the antenna elements at the top,” September said.

He said cell companies are moving toward using lots of smaller towers that can be mounted on light poles. But in high-use areas like this one, you still need a really big tower.

“We have to build our sites closer to where people live and work," September said. AT&T recently upgraded more than 140 of their towers in the Phoenix area to expand their network.

"Building stealth sites allows us to get closer to our customers and still have a site that blends in aesthetically with the area around it,” September said.

As the telecommunications policy coordinator, Keith Niederer reviews all the cellular applications for Scottsdale.

"Aesthetics is everything, especially here in Scottsdale,” he said. Niederer said starting in the late ’90s through today, he’s seen a huge increase in companies looking to build cell sites.

It’s now easier to build smaller towers, but the tall ones - those higher than 36 feet - still have to go through a zoning process. Niederer said communities like Scottsdale mandate the companies make an effort to camouflage them.

"It's to preserve the skyline, mountain views and so on," he said. "To help it blend into the environment better than a 70-foot-tall steel structure.”

Many of the big cell companies hire Tucson-based Larson Camouflage to build their towers. Andrew Messing said his company started out designing and fabricating themed environments like museums, zoos, aquariums, resorts and casinos. He said Sprint came to him back in the ’90s when the company was trying to get a cell tower approved near Denver.

"And the jurisdiction said 'It’s going to ruin the beautiful vista of the mountains' and they said 'no way' - and someone from Sprint said, ‘Well, what if we could make it look like a pine tree?’”

Larson made its first pine tree cell tower and it soon spun off into a whole new division of the company.

“And today we do cyprus trees, saguaro cacti, elm trees, eucalyptus trees, and then we do all different types of fiberglass types of disguise products for rooftops, church steeples," he said.

A fake cactus at Larson Camouflage.
(Photo by Jimmy Jenkins - KJZZ)

In the Larson warehouse, amidst shelves of faux palm fronds and prickly plastic pines, Messing points to workers as they paint the top of a fake fiberglass water tower.

"You can see the wood grain. This will conceal probably about 12 antennas,” he said. Messing said if they do their job right, no one will ever see the towers.

But not everyone is so easily fooled.

Cristobal Martinez is an artist and a scholar whose work has focused on the cell towers. “They mock our intelligence,” Martinez said. 

He said they’re a perfect metaphor for the way we deal with evolving technology. As things get more complex, they also become more seamless, but "underneath the hood there’s a whole system of processes that we’re unaware of that are taking place."

Looking up at a fake palm just off the 101 in Tempe, Martinez said if we want to remain technologically literate, we should use design to highlight and celebrate the cell towers.

“That’s the difference between taking responsibility for the things we create," he said. "Versus trying to now hide that thing or sweep it under the rug.”

Or under the - fake water tower.

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