Can anything be done about ugly cell towers?

There’s no way we could live without cell phones. No way. Let’s be honest about it. Cell phone technology powers our lifestyles. Try to go an hour without a text, a call, a check on the internet, and you’ll see what I mean. The problem is that we think about cell phones as these magic devices that pull information out of the air. We don’t often stop to think about the literally millions of miles of wire that make cell phones possible. Those large, windowless buildings in your city with the phone company’s name on them? They’re full of machines that connect cell towers to the rest of the phone and data networks in this country. Cell phones may be small, but they require huge machines to make them work.

The most obvious part of this whole network is the cell tower. Cell towers are everywhere and most folks agree, they’re pretty ugly. Uglier, in fact, than most other kinds of broadcast towers. That’s why they’re sometimes disguised as trees or something, although let’s be honest that doesn’t work really well.

It’s the very design of the cell network that actually makes the towers so ugly. They can’t hide very effectively because a cell tower works best when there’s nothing between it and your phone. You can’t hide a cell tower inside a building or bury it underground. You really don’t even want it surrounded by other broadcast equipment if you can avoid it. You really want that tower right in the middle of a whole bunch of open space. That’s why cell towers disguised as trees look stupid… it’s not like there are any real trees anywhere in the vicinity.

You’ll also notice that while other kinds of broadcast towers are pretty much straight up-and-down affairs, cell towers have all sorts of white boxes and domes and things that look like big drums attached to them. This is really unavoidable for several reasons. First of all there are several things going on with a cell tower, There are transmitters and receivers for every frequency used by every carrier, and often times these have to be in separate packages. Also, those big white drum things are microwave links which reach to the phone connections. They’re necessary if you’re not going to run a trunk line to the tower, which can be very expensive over long distances.

Also remember that a cell tower could be serving thousands of customers at one time and each customer has his or her own connection to the tower. Some of the equipment can be consolidated but there’s no way to get past having multiple pieces of equipment, and no way to avoid the need to space them a certain distance apart so they don’t interfere with each other.

It’s the very ugliness of cell towers that keeps them from getting to residential neighborhoods where they are increasingly necessary. There are some options like micro-cells which cover less area but are only the size of a summer-camp trunk, and increased efficiency could make those larger cell transceivers smaller. If you really want to blanket an area with cell coverage, though, you’re going to need a big tower, put up high and in the middle of an empty field or up on a mountain.

But really, while cell towers are ugly, they’re necessary. And more importantly, they’re safe. In fact the uglier a tower gets the safer it is. Putting the broadcast equipment up as high as possible makes the amount of RF energy that gets to a person on the ground lower, and while there’s no proof that cell phone broadcasts hurt people, it’s not a bad idea to keep away from heavy-duty broadcast sites when you can. It’s also worth pointing out that a cell tower doesn’t necessarily pull any more power than an average home, so unlike telephone poles that carry power lines, they’re not as dangerous should a storm blow in. I mean, you should stay away from downed power lines, but unlike a high-tension power line with transformers and all that, a cell tower’s pretty benign.

So, folks, cell towers are ugly, but they’re not bad for the environment. They don’t smell bad and they don’t attract attention from animals. They’re just ugly. Sometimes, you just have to live with ugly.