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Missing the Tower for the Trees

Cellphone antennas mix with fake tree limbs in Great Falls Park.
Cellphone antennas mix with fake tree limbs in Great Falls Park. (Kevin Clark - Twp)
By Arshad Mohammed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

It's tough to spot, but there is a pine tree in Great Falls Park that's a little taller and fatter than most of the others in the dense forest.

The tree -- with a steel trunk, rubber bark and plastic needles -- is actually a cellphone tower in disguise, bolted to a concrete base and surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.

As the cellphone has become an indispensable feature of modern life, consumers expect to be able to make calls from almost anywhere -- walking to the store, sitting in an office building or hiking down a trail. At the same time, they do not want the wireless phone companies cluttering their neighborhoods and parks with the metal transmission towers that make five-bar cellphone signals possible.

That's why the companies are having to become more creative, building faux landscapes that hide wireless antennas in many parts of Washington and other cities across the country.

For years, cellphone companies have been disguising cell sites in unique places -- church spires, artificial palm trees and even fake cactuses. plants. But as heavy cellphone usage has extended beyond the downtowns of big cities and into suburban communities, and even the tranquility of nature, the companies are facing greater challenges.

Likewise, the newer demands on the cellphone networks -- text messages, music downloads and video streaming, among them -- are requiring more towers.

"It is a problem," said Keith Mallinson, a Yankee Group executive vice president who directs wireless research at the consulting company. "Everyone wants to have the coverage. Everyone complains when the coverage is bad. But no one wants an ugly tower in their back yard."

Even when the tower has to be in the back yard, the companies are willing to spend top dollar to try to ensure that it is not a terrible eyesore.

Consider the brick Cape Cod at 3845 Military Rd. in Arlington, with its rounded white portico, green shutters and neatly mulched beds of azaleas, hostas and black-eyed Susans.

And the 110-foot cell tower in the back yard.

No one lives in the house. Verizon Wireless built it to hold racks of electronic equipment and fat cables that run out to the tower, painted green at its base to blend in with the trees and changing to a blue-gray at the top to match the sky.

"Business is growing almost exponentially," said Ryan McCarthy, a project engineer with Larson Camouflage LLC of Tucson, one of a handful of companies in the industry. "Not only are more and more jurisdictions pressing for these sorts of solutions, but the ones that are, are becoming more and more stringent. It used to be you could get away with a flagpole; now they want things that look better."


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