Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Cellular Tower Proliferation in the United States

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Cellular Tower Proliferation in the United States

Article excerpt

In relation to service rendered, the cost of the telephone is one of the smallest items in the monthly business and family budget. Few things purchased are of such real, constant, and increasing value.

--American Telephone and Telegraph Co. 1931

Almost overnight they appear in business parks and industrial areas, near suburban shopping malls, and along rural highways. Silhouetted against the sky or squirreled behind trees or buildings, cellular telephone towers are everywhere in the cities, suburbs, and towns of America. Following major highways, rows of towers evolve from self-supporting monopoles in densely populated areas to tall, tapered columns or wire-anchored masts in the countryside. An estimated 128,000 cellular antennae distributed across the United States symbolize the nation's growing freedom from wired communication.

Faced with federal licensing requirements, cellular companies (known also as cell or wireless service providers) are under pressure to extend their networks' geographical boundaries. Forecasts in the late 1990s suggested that 100,000 cellular telephone towers would be in place by 2010 (Phair and others 1998); by the end of 2001 that count had already been exceeded (Figure 1). Despite public insistence on new or expanded service, the growth of cellular networks is a source of controversy in cities and towns. Objections focus on visual impacts and perceived health risks associated with the towers, some of which are more than 250 feet tall. Attempting to manage the proliferation of towers, many communities have initiated zoning ordinances or other actions, such as temporary tower-building moratoriums. Notwithstanding local government efforts to deny permits for the construction of towers, cell providers have successfully overturned local restrictions through litigation, citing the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (Public Law 104-104, 110 Stat. 56 [1996]), which prohibits communities from imposing outright bans on wireless equipment. In cases where local government decisions have been overturned, individuals and small NIMBY (not in my backyard) groups have lobbied to prevent new towers or remove existing ones. Increasing opposition to towers has prompted unique methods for reducing aesthetic objections to tower construction, such as disguising cellular equipment placed on buildings or camouflaging towers as more acceptable structures.

Previous research has looked at the impact of technology on the landscape (Hess 1992; Riley 1994; Thayer 1994) and of utility siting on property values (Hull and Bishop 1988; Hamilton and Schwann 1995). Geographers, landscape architects, and others have examined visual blight, landscape aesthetics, and other issues associated with changes in cultural landscapes (Lowenthal 1968; Lewis 1970, 1973; Tuan 1973,1989; Blake 1979; Bailing and Falk 1982; Smardon 1984; Kennedy, Sell, and Zube 1988; Chenoweth and Gobster 1990; Fulmer 1991; Linder 1997; Stamps 1997; Stilgoe 1998; Pasqualetti 2000). Most of the studies that have analyzed the impacts of wireless technology focus on legal challenges to tower siting or on perceived health issues associated with the electromagnetic radiation produced by cellular equipment (Boney 1998; Hughes 1998; Foster and Carrel 1999; Yant 1999; Jacobson 2000). In this essay I examine the expansion of wireless technology on the American landscape, along with challenges faced by wireless pr oviders and communities in dealing with aesthetic issues associated with the proliferation of towers.


In contrast to developing nations, where cellular technology has expanded in response to basic telephone infrastructure needs, the cellular industry in North America has grown with demand for communications mobility (Kuruppillai, Dontamsetti, and Cosentino 1997). Today about one-third of U.S. workers are mobile, spending an average of 20 percent of their time away from their primary workplace (Schneiderman 1999). …

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