This article was originally published in the New York Times in 2003, as part of a series I did for their ‘Circuits’ section.
May 1, 2003 – In June 1973, lightning struck the steeple of the United Methodist Church in the small coastal town of Ipswich, Mass. The steeple, a prominent landmark since 1860 that appears on the town’s seal, was badly damaged and had to be removed. The church lacked the money for a replacement, estimated to cost more than $100,000.
But the church’s luck changed in 1996, with the proposal of an unusual way to pay for a new steeple. Bell Atlantic (now part of Verizon) was searching for a site for a cellular phone transmission tower in Ipswich but had been blocked from building one by the town zoning board.
”Being a scenic coastal community, they said no way,” said Bob Ebersole, the pastor of United Methodist.
So the company made a deal with the church, agreeing to rebuild the historic steeple and pay a monthly fee in exchange for permission to put its antennas inside.
”We were interested in getting a steeple, and the phone company was interested in getting business,” Pastor Ebersole said. ”The town skyline now looks like it did.”
Across the country, but particularly on the densely populated coasts, cellular companies are under pressure to find creative ways to improve call coverage despite community opposition to unsightly free-standing transmission towers. Increasingly, they are hiding transmission equipment inside and alongside structures like flagpoles, smokestacks, grain silos and water towers.
Church steeples and crosses can be an ideal spot for a tower, especially in small towns that lack other tall structures, said Jim Fryer, an analyst in Lansdowne, Pa., who follows the cellular tower business.
”When churches were originally built, they wanted them to be the tallest structure in the area — the closest to heaven, or so people could hear the bells,” Mr. Fryer said.
Moreover, the good will a company can gain from its association with a church might be helpful in its dealings with a zoning board, he said.
Of an estimated 100,000 cellular towers in the United States, Mr. Fryer said, fewer than 1 percent are found in steeples or crosses. Churches that allow cellular antennas to be installed — often by more than one carrier — reap an average of $1,000 to $3,000 a month in fees, in addition to the cost of having the steeple rebuilt.
The size of the monthly payment is ”based upon the negotiating skills of the pastor or priest there, and how desirable that location is to the carrier,” said Patrick Deloney, a vice president with Engineered Endeavors, a tower construction company that has completed over 100 steeple projects.
In some areas, a carrier might simply want to fill a small coverage gap; in another, it might pursue a high-elevation site to provide coverage for many miles, according to Jim Hormann, director of implementation for AT&T Wireless in the Northeast.
Often, a steeple must be rebuilt with materials like fiberglass or certain woods that allow radio-frequency signals to pass through, Mr. Hormann said. Space also must be found for transmission and switching equipment — usually in the basement, but in the case of one New England church, in a box behind the pulpit.
Finally, a way must be found to keep a steeple’s traditional inhabitants, bats and pigeons, away from the equipment, Mr. Hormann said.
Dan Cline, director of operations for the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, said that over all, sharing space with cellular antennas had been ”a good experience.” His cathedral sits high on a hill on the north side of Baltimore and houses antenna arrays from Sprint, VoiceStream and AT&T Wireless in one of its two towers. Mr. Cline said installers ”had to pass over one of the biggest organ installations on the East Coast,” and avoid disruptions to the cathedral’s three daily Masses while they positioned the antennas.
The project had to gain the approval of the parish council as well as 7,000 parishioners, some of whom had concerns about radiation, Mr. Cline said.
At the church in Ipswich, there was similar concern. It was resolved after the phone company hired a consultant from M.I.T. ”to explain the energy-generating microwaves to us and help us to understand that we wouldn’t glow on Sunday morning,” Pastor Ebersole said.
Although work to widen the cellular carriers’ networks has been slowed by the economic downturn, Mr. Fryer, the Pennsylvania analyst, predicted that the number of cell towers would triple to 300,000 over the next five years with the arrival of the advanced wireless services known as 2.5G and 3G. Those services will use higher frequencies to transmit larger amounts of data over shorter distances, requiring more antenna sites, he said. Transmission equipment is expected to become smaller and less costly, making some church steeple installations more practical.
As more information moves across the cellular network, might churches become concerned about the kind of information passing through their steeples?
”It’s electronic signals, let’s get real,” said Mr. Cline in Baltimore. ”It’s just data.”
In Ipswich, Pastor Ebersole agreed: ”We don’t require a statement of faith from the person that empties our Dumpster.”
Correction: May 5, 2003, Monday A credit in Circuits on Thursday for a picture of the United Methodist Church in Ipswich, Mass. — which financed a new steeple by accommodating a cellphone tower inside — misspelled the photographer’s given name. She is Jodi Hilton, not Jody.