Making the Mobile Environment Beautiful
By Carol Posthumus, Fri Feb 22 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Windmills, lighthouses and even camo trees...

Developers of the world's first cellular tower disguised as a palm tree - towering in at 115ft, the patented Cocos Plumosa Palm - say that with mobile technology's rapid growth, the need for good looking camouflaged base stations around the planet is rising.

In this blossoming offshoot, a mobile economy hybrid of engineering, art, environmental science and Las Vegas make-believe, innovators are going beyond 1G... in trees, that is. They're rolling out 2G trees, windmills - even lighthouses - that stir the imagination as they increasingly adorn masts and base stations.

Many people's energies in the mobile enterprise go into making our mobile devices more beautiful to look at and use. However, making things easier on the eye in things mobile extends to the beautification of the hardware of base stations and masts in the environment.

Similarly to camo-fashion such as cargo trousers - borrowed and refined for our needs, from hardcore hunters and the military, trudged around in everywhere from cubicles to nightclubs - camo-base stations are functional and highly aesthetic at once. Camouflaged base stations do some heavy-duty work (carrying antennae and hardy enough for maintenance people to climb on and in). But, can still look great.

These structures in our environment reflect a lot of the style of mobile and information work warriors, in a way. To industrialists of old the information or communication worker would've, no doubt, looked like wanderers or layabouts, sitting looking pretty or gadding about all over the world - but who actually are fielding and processing many signals, thoughts and communications from all over the place.

It's all about aesthetics

Moreover, in retrospect, the 1G information revolution of the fixed Internet was a lot about stereotypes like the sunshine-shy computer guy, gray computers and, for more bandwidth-hungry systems, visions of borrowings all over the show to lay copper wires and fiber optics. Often our imaginations had to work overtime to transport us away from the mechanically stark computer screen, to visualize the lush landscape and harsh corners of cyberspace. In contrast, the mobile Internet revolution, while taking with it the power of the imagination and virtuality of the Internet, appears, being essentially 'out and about' by nature, more concerned with people's aesthetic needs, in many ways.

The development of aesthetic base stations started some years ago. In 1996, South African group Brolaz Projects erected the world's first cellular tower in tree form: the Cocos Plumosa Palm Pole Tower near Cape Town.

Three years later, says Ivo Lazic, the managing director, the first 2G (dubbed the "New Look Cocos"), was exported and went up on the tropical island of Mauritius. Amongst other things, this tree was designed for cyclonic weather conditions. It withstands winds of around 190 miles per hour!

Camo trees spring up all over

"The 2G improvements included provision for multiple carriers to install their antennae. The tower became more aesthetically pleasing and more proportional - with stronger and shorter leaves," he says. The company has erected 600 disguised base stations thus far. Moreover, their camo-base stations are taking root in numerous countries: including Australia, the United States, Italy, New Zealand, Mauritius, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Philippines - as well as in Africa in Namibia, Botswana and Zambia. In South Africa, they have been recognized for helping a local cellular service provider achieve ISO4001 compliance: the international standard for sound environmental management.

The business has diversified its tree line since the early days, considerably. Design variations, according to the group, are constantly being assessed and developed. They say: "We have a tree type solution for every country's need."

Some people just do not like artificial anything, including tree towers. Though it seems cellular companies have got the most heat from communities when obviously insensitive plans have been suggested to hitch communication masts onto church spires. But many ordinary people enjoy these new economy structures - especially in tree sparse areas - as a part of the landscape. Interestingly, some of the structures even appear to many an expert aesthete's eye as good as the real thing.

It's not really a lighthouse?

Architect Justin Arendse, whose home city, Port Elizabeth, sports a lighthouse-disguised mast in Bluewater Bay, reckons: "We can definitely go for attractive trees, windmills and lighthouses springing up rather than stark communication towers. It's away from that heavy industrial look. Moving away from that is something we welcome, bring on creativity!"

Chuckles Arendse: "Honestly, at first, I didn't even realize the lighthouse in Bluewater Bay was a mobile facility. It blends really well with the whole coastal setting and environment - it's very well done and realistic as a design feat."

And, Arendse is not the only being to adapt his view to include cellular base stations and masts as part of his reality. In Africa, there was a bit of excitement when in 1999 an endangered Martial eaglet was discovered growing up in a cellular mast, after eagles had nested there. Later on, three other sites became home for breeding pairs of black eagles. Given the attraction of the raptors to their masts, the group owning the structures put a special contingency breeding-conservation action plan in place, to ensure that technicians and contractors did not, without very due cause, disturb the nests.

More change an innovation ahead

Meanwhile, the aesthetic engineers and innovators, such as Brolaz, tell they are adapting their trees for different conditions, places and people around the world. For instance, a new blue gum tower tree is specifically being designed for the Australian market. While "100% life like" steel trees and dried trees, camouflage masts in casinos, shopping malls and hotels.

The list of patented trees, for different places around the world, from the group, is fairly vast: including species such as the Phoenix Reclinata Palm Pole Tower (for lush tropical regions) and the Phoenix Dactylifera Palm Pole Tower (also known as a date palm). The latter, not surprisingly, is suited for spaces in the Middle East and desert type regions. Also, cypress and pine pole towers are part of their tree range.

The Cypress pole tower is reportedly a very sophisticated camo breed, for environments such as South Africa, Greece and Australia. Lazic says: "The Cypress is the ultimate in camouflaged structures, as all antennae are covered by a radio frequency transparent dome and removable fiber glass covers." He says the Cypress is internally accessible for maintenance crews - and has on-board an electric winch and built-in crane to lift the dome that covers the antennae.

Looking ahead to the future, the initiators of the planet's first tree disguised base station, see more innovation and change ahead in the ways base stations and masts are placed and look in our environments. Lazic reckons these will evolve both on aesthetic and technological levels.

"Structures will become smaller and lower, with antennae and equipment becoming smaller as technology develops. Eventually we will have small camouflaged base stations located in our gardens, sidewalks, shopping centers and on roof tops," he says.

Carol Posthumus is a freelance author, analyzing how mobile technology impacts our lives. She lives in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.