STEALTH® Concealment Solutions, Inc. designs, engineers and fabricates concealment systems for wireless antenna towers. David Soyka gets a look at what’s behind the façade.
The phrase to “put a good face on” usually means to hide something that might have negative consequences. Since 1992, STEALTH® Concealment Solutions has been putting a good face on things that are actually positive, but happen to be rather unattractive, even as they are necessary. And as the need for these has grown at a tremendous rate, there’s all the more need to mask their appearance.
What this North Charleston, S.C. company seeks to conceal are wireless telecommunications antennas. It puts “a good face” on these towers by engineering and fabricating screening systems designed to blend into the surrounding landscape. So, instead of a tall pole with a bunch of rods sticking out at the top, people driving by the highway see what appears to be a tree.
CEO Sean McLernon emphasizes that STEALTH concealment systems do not reduce the performance and functionality of the antenna. “They just make it look more aesthetically pleasing,” he says.
The majority of concealment designs employ three major material components: steel, fiberglass, and the company’s exclusive StealthSkin™ V panels. The proprietary polyurethane painted StealthSkin™ V foam panels are RF (Radio Frequency) transparent; flat and corner panels available in a variety of sizes that can be painted to match any color.. The panels can also have a sprayed stucco texture, a troweled stucco texture, or a custom matched brick texture.
Panels with a 10-foot vertical span are tested to withstand a wind load of over 110 psf (pounds per square foot), or the equivalent of winds at 200 miles per hour, without failure. Panels with a five-foot vertical span have tested up to 306 psf without panel failure. By modifying some connections, the company claims that the panels can withstand even higher wind loads. Signal loss on these panels can vary, but are typically less than 0.5 decibels for cellular (800 to 900 megahertz) and personal communications services (1.8 to 2.0 gigahertz) frequencies.
McLernon points out that in addition to trees, concealment systems can be designed to mimic rooftops, flagpoles, light poles, bell and clock towers, signs, water towers, silos, crosses, chimneys, and louvers. These can be assembled from standard components for a common application such as a flagpole, or by custom construction. An example of a custom concealment system was a series of Roman-style columns made of foam instead of the usual concrete so the antenna signals could pass through them. Another particularly unique assignment was to simulate an osprey nest.
Indeed, key to any concealment solution is gaining approval from zoning and architectural review boards. “Typically we provide a set of photo conceptuals that show exactly what the camouflaging is going to look like,” McLernon notes. “We’ve found that these conceptual speed the approval process, which ultimately means wireless providers get their antennas up on the site faster and more efficiently and that ultimately saves them money.”
This is particularly important to counteract the NIMBY reaction – “not in my backyard.” Site Management & Technology magazine points out that “homeowners believe that towers in full view of their homes lower their property values and the aesthetic appeal of their neighborhoods. The majority of people do not want obtrusive and non-conforming structures in their backyards.” A concealment system properly designed and presented in the initial planning approval stages can head off this reaction and, in many cases, nearly nullify it, again saving considerable time and expense for the wireless carrier.
Once approved by any regulatory authority, STEALTH works with the building owners to ensure the concealment works to their satisfaction, a task easier said than done. “Getting the measurements, the colors, all the nuances just right so the building owner will accept the concealment and sign off on it is always a challenge. They’re looking for a perfect match, which is always a challenge when you consider that a color sample can look totally different depending on what time of day it is and whether it’s cloudy or not.”
STEALTH’s success since its founding in 1992 demonstrates that it is up to the challenge. One example is this testimonial from Douglas Heagy, pastor of the Jefferson United Methodist Church in Clairton, Pa., who wrote, “First of all, the steeple is beautiful, but beautiful in an important way. The material you used to make the steeple has not clashed with the appearance of our nearly 50-yearold church building … the steeple appears as it though was always part of our church. One prominent member of the community put it to me this way. ‘Pastor, after 50 years the church building has now finally been built. The steeple should have always been there, and now it is.’”
PIONEERING THE INDUSTRY
McLernon notes that STEALTH pioneered the concealment concept. “My father was driving down the highway one day, and he was thinking about the need to get better cellular coverage and at the same time was passing by these large signs on the side of the road – petroleum signs, hotel signs, those types – and he started to think, what if they were to put cellular antennas in there? That’s how STEALTH was conceived.”
The industry definition – “a stealth site is an antenna site that screens, hides or camouflages an antenna with minimal reduction to the system’s performance” – attests to how the company name has become synonymous with the application, much as people say they want a “Xerox” of a document, regardless of what brand of machine actually produces the copy. “That’s why we copyrighted the company name,” McLernon explains. “There are a lot of companies today that offer concealment systems, but we are the originators of the concept and the only company that can call itself STEALTH®.”
Given the growth of wireless use in this country, McLernon believes that demand for antenna concealment solutions hasn’t yet peaked. “The last seven or eight years are where we’ve really seen steady growth and it shows no signs of stopping as the carriers introduce phones that require more bandwidth than ever.
PROVIDING A NECESSITY
Nor is STEALTH limited to North America. “We’ve done systems in South America, Europe and Asia. But even in this country alone, there’s still a lot of network growth. All the carriers are competing to provide the most total uninterrupted coverage, and the state of the economy notwithstanding, the infrastructure is going to continue to be built. I was just reading an article where the CEO of Sprint said that eight years ago an economic downturn would have been disastrous for the wireless industry because, back then, mobile phones were considered a luxury. Today, mobile phones aren’t a luxury, they’re a necessity. So the mobile phone companies are not in a position to cut back on providing better services, even in a difficult economy.”
STEALTH employs 48 people and manufactures its systems in a 25,000-square-foot facility. The company also enjoys a fairly reliable labor pool.
While STEALTH manufacturers the components, it rarely does on-site installation. “Once in a great while there’s something unique going on that might require our being on-site,” McLernon says. “But, for the most part, either the carrier has its own crews to do this or we partner with a local installation company.”
McLernon notes that there are currently five to seven competitors, and that three or four of them might be considered “formidable.” He adds, however, “I think there’s going be a shakeout and some consolidation, particularly as the economy worsens. And, if that presents some opportunities for us to acquire someone or otherwise gain market share, I think we’re well positioned to consider that.”
One area where he thinks the company will surely expand is in maintenance. “Installations that have been out there five years or more are going to start to show some wear and tear and parts might need to be replaced or spruced up. I think that’s going to a growth area for us, as well,” McLernon says.
He emphasizes that “our sole business is creating solutions that enable wireless carriers to implement their massive infrastructure build out. That’s the one thing we don’t try to hide.”