Concealed towers and small cells: Safety and regulation in a growing industry

By Nicole Blanchard

A Stealth tower in Mt. Blue State Park, Maine.
Source: Stealth

In the past, camouflaged towers might have called up thoughts of forlorn fake evergreens sticking out of the surrounding scenery like a sore thumb, but concealment is becoming more popular, more artistic and more necessary to infiltrate populated areas that may need a boost to coverage. As tower concealment's popularity continues to increase, the folks who build the disguises are looking for the best ways to modernize. In many cases, that means keeping up with the latest in radio equipment -- but as concealed towers become commonplace and more corporations try to get their hands in the game, the industry may need to take a look at who is responsible for regulating these innovative disguises.

According to Todd Schlekeway, executive director of the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE), some tower companies are working on getting into the stealth build market themselves -- but most agree that it's a task best left to the professionals. That's where tower disguise experts like Cindy Wishart and her team come in. Wishart is the sales and marketing specialist for camouflage tower company Stealth, a concealment firm that claims to be the founder of the tower disguise industry, starting by concealing wireless antennas in 1992.

"This is what we do," Wishart said. "We don't dabble."

And Schlekeway said Stealth's services might be the future for not only tower builds, but also small cells as the industry's popularity grows (Stealth, which is a privately held company, declined to provide details on its employee count and financials, as well as on the overall size of the tower concealment industry).

"It can be a very difficult process to get a tower zoned and permitted. A lot of municipalities are insisting that these towers are stealth towers," Schlekeway said.

It's not hard to believe. As recently as the beginning of this month, complaints surfaced in Bethel, Conn., over a North Atlantic Towers build set to go forward on private property without any sort of concealment. But sometimes the disguise isn't enough. In another bit of recent news, Verizon Wireless' plans for a tower in Eugene, Ore., were met with similar disdain, despite the fact that the 75-foot build, which would be placed at a local church, will be camouflaged to look like a tree.

Towers are getting smaller and stealthier

Companies are getting more creative -- and tailoring each build for its specific site -- when it comes to their disguise proposals. Wishart said Stealth now builds disguises to look like faux building railings, church windows, saguaro cacti and more. While private citizens still aren't happy about intrusion from tower companies, it's now becoming more feasible for that equipment to be attached to their local buildings. Highly detailed and customizable stealth builds are now making that option more likely, particularly in buildings like churches where decorative steeples or cupolas present the perfect opportunity for concealment.

A small cell concealment in a light pole in Pittsburgh.
Source: Stealth

Further, the increasing popularity of small cells is helping to drive this trend. Where tower disguises were once limited to massive builds whose camouflage options were both large and expensive, creativity was not an initial priority. But the rise in small cells' popularity has proven to be a boon for camouflage companies as well. Stealth offers small cell and distributed antenna systems (DAS) options, which Wishart said are surprisingly similar to the company's regular offerings.

"DAS are exciting because a lot of those are stadium or university-based. With DAS, you see higher quantities," she said. "You may need 30 side-mounted boxes."

Because small cells are so popular for covering the spikes in data usage during sporting events and the like, Wishart said the company's builds often play into the stadium décor in a functional way. Logos, scoreboards and decorative signage are typical small cell disguises, in addition to Stealth's main option, light poles.

Regulations and responsibility in tower disguises

Unlike small cells, tower builds are regulated by the FCC. But it's unclear whether the camouflage setups that disguise towers fall under the same strict guidelines. The Commission has extensive policies to accommodate aircraft, migratory birds and, of course, safety, but none of those regulations point directly to camouflaged tower build rules. Schlekeway said he's not aware of any restrictions either, although he added that the disguises don't seem to be a safety issue as far as NATE is concerned.

A church cupola concealment in Rhode Island.
Source: Stealth

"I can't point to a specific instance where [the lack of regulations has] compromised safety, but it is something to be aware of," he said.

That gray area falls in line with some other murky responsibilities where disguised towers are concerned. At most camouflage companies, like Stealth, the build begins as a partnership between the tower company commissioning the disguise and the camouflage company crafting the concealment.

"Before we really get into designing, the customer provides us with a footprint, if you will," said Wishart. Then Stealth's engineers design and create the camouflage pieces, which go to the tower client's installers to be fully assembled on the antenna that's being concealed. That's where things can become tricky -- some companies may contract special teams to assemble the disguises, while others rely on in-house teams that may not be trained in the nuance and safety concerns inherent in assembling a tree or cactus rather than their typical build.

Later, a tower owner may send out installers for repairs on weathered or damaged concealments, which can become complicated, or perhaps even dangerous, when taking into account tower components like "tree" branches, covers, and the like. For instance, Crown Castle representatives said their company's own maintenance and operations team monitors and updates concealments as needed. Other companies that utilize disguised towers, like American Tower, APC Towers and SBA Communications, did not respond to requests for comment on the topic.

"We definitely want to push the maintenance component. Ultimately it's the buyer or customer that needs to check up on it," Wishart said, adding that Stealth does provide the option to send an engineer out to aid in orchestrating the initial construction of a concealment.

"We definitely do not just wash our hands of it [once it's created]," she said. "Some installers [from tower companies] are not familiar with [the disguises], so our VP of installations gives the site a heads up."

The result is a bit of confusion over who will maintain concealments going forward -- or who is even best qualified to. Both concealment specialists and tower owners and installers want well-maintained concealments, as well as safe working conditions for the installers and maintainers, but the haziness in how to build and maintain the structures makes delegation complicated.

So what does the ambiguity mean for the future of the fast-growing camouflage tower business? While neither disguise companies nor the tower companies themselves currently seems to be concerned with regulations or the safety inherent in building and maintaining the concealments, there's a possibility that, as camo towers become even more of the norm (or, as Schlekeway hinted, necessary for any future installations), a regulation or training outline may need to be put into place.

"From NATE's perspective, we're always going to watch to see how they're being built and make sure it doesn't compromise safety or function," Schlekeway said, mulling over the possibility of the organization stepping in to offer best practices. "If it's built properly, it shouldn't compromise either."

Concealed towers and small cells: Safety and regulation in a growing industry
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