LOS ANGELES — Faced with providing service for ever more data-hungry cellphones, telecommunications carriers are in a nonstop race costing billions of dollars to boost the capacities of their networks.
To handle the heavy volume of video, music and Web pages that smartphone users are downloading, just about every type of structure is being pressed into service as cell towers, from office buildings, strip malls, condominiums, schools, churches to even water towers and freeway overpasses.
The number of cell stations is growing rapidly but stealthily. Few new cell sites are the imposing triangle-topped metal poles that are widely regarded as eyesores.
"People think cell sites look like oil derricks," said Andy Shibley, AT&T's general manager for the greater Los Angeles region. "Some still exist, but by and large that is not the case anymore."
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One AT&T site is in a false chimney atop a country club clubhouse. Church steeples are a favorite spot. A cell site might even be the tenant down the hall.
One of the occupants in a historic Whittier, Calif., office building is AT&T, which rents a room on the top floor to house radio equipment connected to an antenna outside.
Carriers are reluctant to discuss how much rent they are willing to pay, but industry observers say cell sites typically lease for $1,800 to $2,500 a month per carrier in urban locations. It's common for two or more carriers to set up equipment at the same spot. Highly desirable sites can command as much as $4,000 a month.
Carriers have been spending big because it takes a lot of time and money to set up a new cell site. The average Verizon Wireless network location costs about $750,000, spokesman Ken Muche said, and it takes about 18 months to get a new site approved by local officials and then built.
"Federal departments, like on military bases, take longer," he said.
Verizon invested more than $470 million in upgrading its Southern California network last year. Sites on municipal property such as light poles and street medians are common, he said, and people in the private sector often try to get in on the action and collect some rent from carriers.
"We get calls from commercial property owners, residential owners, happy to put a site in the backyard or on top of a laundromat," Muche said.
Not every property owner can hope to land a cell company tenant, though. It's all about latitude, longitude and altitude, said telecom consultant David Kenworthy, who helped get service to the Los Angeles Coliseum years ago.
Carriers use different systems to relay signals, and their cell-site height needs vary by location, he said.
"Sometimes they want 40 stories, sometimes two stories," he said. "Every case is different."