To expand service, cellular phone companies are turning to a higher power.
They’re not increasing the wattage of their transmitters. They’re looking for churches near residential areas willing to let them hide cell sites in steeples, belfries and crosses.
Wireless companies are hunting for new sites as they scramble to close gaps in phone reception and expand their networks to meet the explosion of smartphones and tablets. Conventional cellphone towers in neighborhoods are often opposed as eyesores, and sometimes banned. Churches offer an alternative.
Not so fast, some worshipers and residents near churches say.
Cell tower opponents contend there is a potential radiation danger to children and neighbors from cellular transmitters, an assertion that the wireless industry says is false.
The cellphone trade group CTIA says that emissions from the industry’s towers are “thousands of times less than the FCC’s limits for safe exposure,” and it cites reports from the Federal Communications Commission asserting that no evidence links cancer to wireless devices or, according to the National Cancer Institute, to radio-frequency energy.
But in 2011, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified radio-frequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans, bolstering fears raised by tower opponents.
Earlier this year, parents in Burbank protested when plans were announced to install a T-Mobile cell site at the Little White Chapel. Twelve antennas were to be placed in the church’s steeple and other equipment installed on the first floor of the sanctuary.
In May, the Burbank City Council unanimously declined to approve the Planning Board’s OK of the project, which was based on a 2011 ordinance allowing antennas on institutional buildings such as churches and schools.
In Tujunga, parents and others, citing aesthetic grounds, have protested plans for a Metro PCS cell tower disguised as a pine tree at Our Lady of Lourdes School.
Verizon had better luck in October when the Camarillo Planning Commission approved a conditional use permit for a dozen cellular antennas inside a 53-foot church steeple and cross at Trinity Presbyterian Church.
The idea is not new. In 1997, Nextel Communications sought to place a tower on the playground of Holy Redeemer School in Montrose but stopped its plans after parents complained.
But the trend may be accelerating: A recent survey by California Watch, an investigative reporting group, noted that no one keeps track how many churches in California have cell sites but found that some congregations actively market themselves.
The Canyon Creek Presbyterian Church in San Ramon sought out wireless providers when it was constructing a building six years ago and eventually struck a deal with T-Mobile that brings $25,000 to $30,000 a year to the church.
While the church lost part of its property tax exemption because of the cell site, it still comes out financially ahead.
Churches with cell sites say they welcome the income from working out lease deals with wireless companies. It can total as much as $4,000 a month.
The Green Hills Baptist Church in La Habra first leased space to Pac Bell about 20 years ago, said Pastor Bob Gallina. These days the nine or so T-Mobile transmitters that are attached to an outdoor cross bring in about $20,000 annually, he said.
Legal experts say ministers and other church leaders should read the fine print closely when considering a carrier’s offer. “Often church people are entirely too trusting,” said John W. Pestle, a Tucson-area lawyer who frequently advises property owners who are considering hosting cell sites.
Long-term leases can stymie a church that needs to physically expand in the future, Pestle said. And because wireless companies prefer to keep lease amounts confidential, churches may have difficulty comparing rates.
Until now, the growth in cell sites tucked in steeples, bell towers and in crosses has been modest; only a couple of hundred of the 5,000 new sites built in the U.S. this year were in churches, said Ken Schmidt, president of the consulting firm Steel in the Air based in Ft. Myers, Fla.
But that could change as wireless companies ramp up service. Schmidt said AT&T; has announced plans to add 10,000 additional macro cell sites on tall towers and 40,000 smaller, shorter-range sites on existing buildings.
That means churches with tall towers and steeples close to neighborhoods will be sought out by the wireless industry.
Carriers may pass the collection plate among customers to pay for the new cell sites.