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dot life Monday, 16 September, 2002, 11:44 GMT 12:44 UK
How mobile phone masts 'vanish'
Screen grab from The Undetectables
Hidden mast, as revealed by The Undetectables website

Think you could spot a mobile phone mast near your home or office? Think again.
Some mobile phone operators are going to extraordinary lengths to conceal the masts that form their networks.

They are being disguised as chimneys, clocks, windows, drainpipes, even as weathervanes, all in an effort to meet the demands of planning departments.

Controversy often surrounds applications to site phone networks. Mobile operators were recently barred from putting the masts close to schools in the UK; many parents had said they were worried about health and safety implications.

Screen grab from The Undetectables
Mast hidden in Bristol church window
But the number of masts around the country is set to increase, as networks upgrade to second and third generation mobile technologies.

Each British mobile network has about 8,000 cells, which means about as many masts, and the maximum size of a cell is 35km.

In third generation (3G) mobile networks the cell can be a maximum of 8km wide, which means they need lots more masts.

Mobile abuse

This, and the fact that masts are shrinking, creates problems.

"As we come down in size there is a requirement to be closer to your customer area," said Graeme Hill, a director of James Barr Consultants which advises firms seeking mast sites. "And that means in and around residential areas."

Mobile mast, BBC
Mobile phone mast: Not a pretty sight
Masts used to be about 30 metres high but as technology improves they shrink. Now some are as small as 8 metres high, said Mr Hill.

Before now some firms have used fake trees as masts which resembled Scots pines.

It is a tactic that might work on a hilltop when it is concealed among other trees but a fake tree on a street corner would be like putting lipstick on a gorilla.

The difficulties are compounded by the fact that many neighbourhoods welcome phone masts with all the warmth they usually reserve for traffic wardens.

And it's not just the public who are critical of phone masts.

"We deal with visual atrocities," said Sue Lipscombe, spokeswoman for The Undetectables, a firm often employed by mobile operators to help them hide masts.

Ms Lipscombe said it let operators worry about the health and safety aspects of phone masts and The Undetectables worries about the visual pollution they cause.

"Some telecoms companies can be inconsiderate," she said. "They would rather use masts and are reluctant to come to us."

Screengrab from The Undetectables
A Leicester chimney, disguising phone mast
The Undetectables grew out of a firm that used to build sets and scenery for Aardman Animations and it takes the same care with the fake chimney pots, drainpipes and flagpoles they create to hide masts.

"We put in the bird muck, the pollution, everything," she said.

The result is that phone masts become utterly invisible.

Losing sight

For instance, the support pole for the golden angel weathervane on Guildford Cathedral is actually a mobile mast and supports several antennas.

In return for using the site, which sits on a hilltop and is a coveted location, the angel was regilded.

More complicated was St Stephen's church in Edinburgh. This houses eight mobile antennas sitting behind fibreglass panels in its belfry. The panels forming corner pillars were painted to resemble the surrounding brickwork.

Wallace and Gromit, BBC
The set makers for Wallace and Gromit have moved on
The street sign for Northumberland Avenue in Westminster is also a plastic sign hiding a few antenna.

Dotted around Britain are fake chimney pots, fake flagpoles, fake drainpipes and fake signs all made of glass-reinforced plastic and concealing mobile antennas.

Possibly the most complicated concealment job was done on the Town Hall clock in Hungerford in Berkshire.

Antennas are mounted at the centre of each of the four faces of the clock next to the hands.

The four faces have been renewed and the clock hands themselves have been replaced with glass-reinforced plastic versions that have been balanced to ensure the clock keeps the right time.

They take such pains for good reasons, said Mr Hill.

"Concealment is not about trying to disguise the installations to fool the people living in the vicinity of them," he said.

"It's come from through planning officers and local authorities not wanting architecturally important buildings to be damaged from a visual point of view," he added.

If they did not take such trouble the landscape would be dotted with "architectural acne" said Ms Lipscombe.

And that is a growing pain that no-one wants to see and everyone is glad to see the back of as they mature.

Weely guide to getting buttoned up

See also:

06 Aug 02 | Politics
11 Apr 02 | N Ireland
23 Jul 01 | Scotland
12 Apr 01 | Business
06 Jul 01 | Business
07 Aug 98 | Science/Nature
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