Ina Fried

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A View to a Cell: San Francisco Mobile Towers Get Prime Real Estate (Video)

Glance at the marquee at the 2000 Van Ness Medical Arts Building, and you’ll see a long list of doctors, dentists and other medical professionals.

New and old sprint gear

But it’s the tenants that aren’t listed — the ones with the stellar rooftop view — that have drawn a crowd of reporters on this sunny Tuesday afternoon.

This building, like 2,000 other spots in the Bay Area, is home to the bulky electrical equipment needed to send and receive cellphone signals.

For the privilege of housing their gear, phone companies pay thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars per month. In some cases, landlords make more from the towers on their roofs than they do from the tenants inside their building.

Because it’s so hard to get approval to build new towers, the same locations are often home to more than one carrier’s cell towers, and it has become commonplace to see towers from fierce rivals located right next to each other. And once one cell company makes its way in someplace, the others tend to follow.

This particular rooftop, for example, houses gear for Sprint, MetroPCS and AT&T.

But it is a neighborhood in transition.

An area of peeled-away paint shows the spot that used to be home to gear from Sprint’s soon-to-be-shuttered Nextel network.

The newest arrival is a refrigererator-sized cabinet that houses Sprint’s 4G LTE gear as well as the systems needed to support older networks. Immediately adjacent is a slightly smaller box containing a backup system with enough battery capacity to power the network gear for four to eight hours.

The new gear, like other similar systems in San Francisco, have begun to bring LTE service to Sprint’s Bay Area customers, though it has yet to formally announce this area as one of its expanding network of markets with the high-speed wireless service.

Next to the new system is the one it is replacing. That unit, which handled fewer frequencies and managed fewer services, nonetheless occupied more than twice as much space. Though still up and running, that system will soon be dismantled, removed and recycled.

In addition to the cabinets, the roof is outfitted with a number of different antennas — several for each of the carriers, providing the maximum amount of coverage. The antennas also explain why it is no coincidence that the building has a sweeping panoramic view of the San Francisco Bay. In addition to being a breathtaking sight for the occasional repairman, the view means that the tower is also seen by a good part of the city — ensuring that the tower reaches a wide coverage area.

“Cell towers have the best view,” said Chris Brydon, Sprint’s area director for Northern California.

Of course, few people will ever see that view, given that it is home to vital and expensive computer gear. Plus, its radiation levels are high enough that the door leading to the roof is plastered with nearly a dozen warning signs.

The fact that this roof is already home to network gear means that the approval process to install LTE equipment is far simpler than trying to find a new location. As a result, many rooftops like this one are getting a makeover.

It’s a scene that has been playing out across America, as all the major carriers replace or augment their 3G systems with those capable of providing high-speed LTE service.

To help install all these new systems, Sprint calls upon a variety of other companies. Ericsson manages the installations and network operations, overseeing gear supplied by a trio of companies — Samsung, Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson’s hardware unit.

The race to build out LTE has created a shortage of a particular specialty of workers — those who climb poles for a living. (In addition to pole-climbing skills, such workers also have to be engineers with a specialty in radio frequency technology — a qualification that significantly thins the applicant pool.)

“It’s one of the most sought-after skills in the industry,” said Joe Meyer, the 21-year Sprint veteran who serves as vice president of network service management.

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Sprint’s new 4G LTE network cabinet (foreground, with door open), followed by the Sprint gear it is replacing and, furthest away, a rival carrier’s gear.


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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald