In smartphone era, cell towers designed to blend into landscape

AT&T officials showed off the company’s stealth cellular antenna site Tuesday near the In-N-Out restaurant on Harvey Drive and said more sites are on the horizon — a signal of what may be to come as service providers seek to boost their capacity to handle the increased data demand of smart phones.

The so-called stealth cell sites, masked to resemble trees or hidden inside flag poles, could ease their proliferation into dead zones where cell phone signals are weak. Efforts to do so in residential neighborhood have been met with strong resistance on aesthetic grounds and fears of unknown health risks.

The equipment discussed on Tuesday is located inside a small building, with underground cables that attach to an antenna atop a large flagpole near the In-N-Out restaurant.

Data traffic on AT&T’s network has increased by 8,000% in the past four years and it keeps growing, said Georgia Taylor, the company’s director of news relations. Smart phones make up 50% of the data load on the network overall, but that figure jumps to 70% among new customers, she added.

“That really has become our call to action to not only keep pace with demand, but stay ahead of consumer demand,” Taylor said.

AT&T officials said more stealth sites are planned, but could not disclose their locations unless they are available for public review with the city.

In February 2009, T-Mobile withdrew an application to build a cellular antenna on the 500 block of Cumberland Road following strong opposition from residents who formed an action group.

The following year, the City Council approved an ordinance to more strictly regulate where and how cellular antennas are built in residential neighborhoods.

Jan Edwards, principal civil engineer for the city, said there are 12 applications for cellular towers in the city’s planning process. She could not immediately say which cellular providers had filed the requests, but all of them would be on private property. About half of those would be in residential areas, Edwards added.

AT&T currently has 24 cell sites in Glendale and 20 in Burbank, said Meredith Red, a company spokeswoman.

Of those, about 90% are on private property and blend in with the environment, Taylor added.

Stealth sites have already been deployed in Glendale, such as the Glendale Galleria and outside Glendale Community College. There is a stealth site on a telephone pole on East Chevy Chase Drive and a tower made to look like a tree on North Glendale Avenue.

AT&T is investing $450 million in network improvements in the greater Los Angeles area and $20 billion across the nation, Taylor said.

At the tour on Tuesday, AT&T also unveiled new products, including a global position system device that can be attached to a pet’s collar. Taylor said the devices can also be used for children or elderly adults.

Another new product is a wireless system that sends a reminder to take medication.

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