Cellphone Towers Don't Have to Be Ugly

That cactus could save your signal

Key Takeaways

  • A new photography book explores the world of concealed cell phone towers that are increasing throughout the US. 
  • Concealment of cell phone towers is a growing issue as the nation’s faster 5G network expands. 
  • The city of Scottsdale, Ariz., for example, is hiding its 5G towers in street lights.
A camouflaged telecommunications tower that looks like a palm tree.

keithsutherland / Getty Images

There’s a hidden world of cell phone towers out there if you just know where to look.

The new book, "Fauxliage" investigates the wonderful and sometimes wacky ways that companies disguise the necessary towers to beam phone calls and data to phones. Photographer Annette LeMay Burke showcases cell towers that have been designed to blend into their surroundings, including airbrushed cacti and church crosses.

"Cell phone towers were initially considered visual pollution," Burke said in an email interview. "The first disguised tower, a pine tree, was created in Denver in 1992 to appease the NIMBYs [aka Not-in-My-Back-Yards]."

Making Peace With the Neighbors

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 restricts the ability of local communities to regulate the placement of cell phone towers. "So if the cell service provider can find a local property owner willing to lease a portion of their land for a tower, the local municipality can’t stop them," Burke said.

"The disguises are still created to mitigate visual concerns of the community."

Hiding cell phone towers is an issue that arises as companies try to expand their networks. Neighbors aren’t always happy to have the towers.

Last month, the Las Campanas area north of Santa Fe got approval for a 70-foot tall Verizon Wireless cell tower that will be hidden within a bell tower design. Some residents had campaigned against the tower, due to concerns it would be too tall. 

Concealment is a growing issue as the nation’s faster 5G network expands. That’s because high-band mmWave 5G signals can be blocked by structures. Also, 5G signals can only travel short distances, so 5G towers must be placed a couple of hundred feet apart.

To solve this problem, the city of Scottsdale, Ariz., for example, is hiding its 5G towers in street lights.

Sometimes, though, it’s not possible to stick a fake cactus in the middle of a city and not have people notice.

That’s why surge protection company Raycap worked with New York City authorities on cell solutions that use InvisiWave, a concealment material that works with 5G mmWave bandwidth and gigabit speeds, with minimal signal loss. It works on places like rooftops, screen walls, chimney concealments for new site builds, and retrofit projects, the company wrote on its website

Snapping Photos of Concealed Towers

Burke got the idea for the book after noticing the different kinds of camouflage used by cell phone companies. 

"I was also interested in how technology was modifying our environment," she added. "I thought the book form was a great way to compare the diversity of disguises and address the question—how much of an ersatz landscape do we want in return for five bars of service?"

'Cactus' cellphone towers in "Fauxliage" by Annette LeMay Burke, published by Daylight Books.
'Cactus' cellphone towers in "Fauxliage" by Annette LeMay Burke, published by Daylight Books.

Photography © Annette LeMay Burke

Burke discovered some far-out cell phone tower designs as she researched her book. Her favorites are the saguaro cacti, because of their realism. "The detailed workmanship in the disguises is impressive," she said. "The cactus spine spots are all individually airbrushed, and the designers have even created dark patches that mimic the bird nest burrows."

The hidden towers can be anywhere. Some of the most effective forms of camouflage for cellphone towers take form in everyday structures and landscapes, such as light poles, trees, flagpoles, traffic lights, and clock towers, Mark Rapley, director of operations for internet provider KWIC Internet, said in an email interview. 

"People often do not recognize that they are towers, thus disguising them into structures and landscapes in plain sight," he added. 

But the best camouflage depends on who’s looking, Burke said. "The crosses, flagpoles, water towers, and windmills are very effective," she added. "Sometimes they are completely enclosed—in a church steeple, behind an office building façade, or a strip mall clock tower. The only tell is an EMF warning sign."

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