The mobile phone in your pocket or purse is part of a vast communications system that is mostly beyond our vision, much like the internet. But as journalist Andrew Blum explains in his new book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, the bits and blogs of the seemingly wireless internet still travel to us on hard infrastructure and get stored in physical places. Similarly, the voices and texts and data that we regularly zip back and forth on our cell phones travel as radio waves we can't see and are connected through fiber optic cables buried beneath our feet. They rely just as much on a physically wired infrastructure as the internet, but we don't often see it. But, wait. Look up.
On the corners of buildings or the side of parking structures or the steeples of churches or semi-camouflaged as metal trees, you can see the visible element of the cell phone communication system: the antenna. These narrow bars are often groups on poles or on rooftops, both ambiguous and not, blending into the urban environment like telephone wires or air conditioning units that you only really notice if you're looking for them. If you look for cell phone antennas, you'll probably start to see them all over the place. You'll also see the many ways that we have tried to hide or at least doll up their inherent ugliness.
We call them cell phones because they operate as part of a cellular system. Individual antenna cells are networked so that they can send their radio waves between one another, transferring our 'hellos' and 'where u ats' and Google Maps from place to place to the screens we hold in our hands. Just like the cells in our bodies, one of these antennas on its own isn't particularly useful, but a whole bunch of them linked up can let us jabber for hours on a cross-country car ride or even as we meander through our own neighborhoods.
To get this seamless network of connectivity, cell phone antennas and towers have to be sprinkled across all the areas we want to be able to get service. And the more people relying on that service, the more antennas are needed. In dense urban areas, they may need to be as close as a quarter-mile apart. What results is literally hundreds of rooftop arrays or building corner add-ons of 6 or 10 of these long white bars.