Make a call or text on your cell, check your email or Facebook, get a signal on your favorite radio station — practically every wireless convenience in modern life results from more and more towers jutting into the sky.
Over the last 10 to 15 years, tower after tower has gone up throughout the region — some playing host to multiple cell providers. And in Northfield, approval was just given to a 125-foot radio tower to complement Townsquare media’s main tower off Route 30 in Atlantic City.
Times have changed from the days when towers were regarded as eyesores, residents and officials said — or at least people have gotten more used to them. And at the same time, concerns about cancer risks from the towers have mostly subsided.
“It’s a public service,” Egg Harbor Township Administrator Peter Miller said of the towers. “More people have cell phones and don’t have land lines.”
There are 13 cell towers in Egg Harbor Township alone, including the 250-foot-tall tower behind the municipal building on Bargaintown Road — one that several neighboring residents said could be considered an eyesore, but they have since gotten used to.
The township code mandates that the “first priority location” for towers are places owned by the city in nonresidential areas — two towers are located behind the Scullville firehouse alone — followed by the school district and then existing telecommunications facilities or water towers. Only then can companies apply to build on “such locations as the applicant proves are essential to provide required service.”
“When cell companies come in, they give us the service area and show us why that particular tower should exist by showing us that there isn’t any service in that area,” Miller said. The greater priority towards existing towers has the effect of companies trying to build at the best locations first in order to have other companies come to them to rent space.
Added Hamilton Township Administrator Mike Jacobs, “It’s not like it was 10 years ago, when they were all trying to get the best spots. There’s a tower in the back parking lot (at township hall) where they never put an antenna in.”
But Miller said the rise of more powerful smartphones has led to more of a need for towers.
“The greater sophistication of cell phones has reduced the area a signal travels,” Miller said. “Ten to 15 years ago, you could put up a cell tower and it would serve a two-mile radius. Now, it’s been cut in half. Every cell phone does a lot more than transmit voice.”
AT&T, for one, invested more than $2 billion in its New Jersey wireless networks from 2010 through 2012, a spokeswoman said, mostly due to expanding 4G mobile Internet coverage.
In Northfield, where one tower is just outside Birch Grove Park and another tower near Tilton Road is located in a small business complex, Mayor Vince Mazzeo said that there has been less negative reaction from residents about towers than in the past, when there had been concerns about cancer risks.
The American Cancer Society now concludes that the level of radiofrequency waves emitted from cell towers is very low at ground level, and “most scientists agree that cell phone antennas or towers are unlikely to cause cancer.”
“I haven’t heard anything in recent years,” Mazzeo said. “The times we’re in right now, we need cell towers. It’s important for the way we function now as citizens.”
Frank Jones, who lives across the street from a cell tower in Linwood, said the tower isn’t much of an intrusion these days — especially compared with the older structure right next to it.
“It can’t be more of an eyesore than the water tower,” Jones said. “It depends on where you live. If you were in a rural neighborhood, I don’t know if you would even see it.”
The Bargaintown tower is 250 feet high — well above the standard township maximum of 120 feet for cell towers — because it also acts as a radio tower, with frequencies for several public agencies.
Townsquare Media is building the new 125-foot Northfield radio tower behind an an office building on 950 Tilton Road as a backup tower for its stations, which include WFBG Lite Rock, WPG Talk Radio, Cat Country WPUR and WSJO, in case its 385-foot tower in Atlantic City is knocked out by flooding like during Hurricane Sandy — meaning it would be able to broadcast emergency signals, including that of the National Weather Service, which rents space on the tower.
“Most radio towers these days are not run by radio stations anymore,” said Townsquare Chief Engineer Tom McNally. “What happened the last 15 to 20 years is that when stations were sold to new owners, the old owners kept the tower as a revenue source.”
Townsquare’s Atlantic City tower, dating from 1960, is one of three main towers in one area — near Venice Park. The Equity tower, which provides signals for WMIB and WZBZ, is to its left, and the 350-foot-high WAYV tower, which dates from 1947, is across Route 30 to the south.
The higher the towers, the less powerful the signal has to be in order to broadcast — though there are all kinds of restrictions and guidelines.
“For the class of station WFBG is — a Class B FM — it can have 50,000 watts at 500 feet,” McNally said. The FAA prevented the construction of a 500-foot tower in 1960 because Bader Field was still active — and though the company was given permission to go higher several years ago after the airport’s closure, by then it would have cost too much.
If a station’s antenna is above the prescribed height limit, it has to reduce power — but that’s a benefit in many cases, because it doesn’t need as much power the higher it gets. Cat Country broadcasts at 25,000 watts from 328 feet up, as opposed to its 13,500-watt antenna that used to be located on the 460-foot-high Trump Taj Mahal.
“They (needed to add) another 10,000 watts by coming down lower in height,” McNally said. “You always prefer height to power.”
Placing an antenna on the roof of Revel at 700 feet, he said, would lead to lower electric bills for stations such as WFPJ, which has a monthly bill of about $500.
The highest radio tower to have ever been built in the area, as it happened, would dwarf any tower today. Built by the German government outside Tuckerton in 1912, the 820-foot-high structure was long rumored to have broadcast the signal to sink the Lusitania three years later. Seized following the U.S’s. entry in World War I, it was torn down in 1955.
As for the backup Northfield tower, its expected construction is an example of just how easy it is to put up a tower.
“You pour the concrete and stick the tower in,” McNally said, “and it should be up in a matter of days.”
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