07 February 2012

infrastructure of mobile telephony and the physicality of the Internet

An AT&T cellular tower sits between the playground for the Hawthorne Cultural Center and a block of two-story, brick row-homes at the intersection of Carpenter Street and South 13th Street in South Philadelphia. A flock of birds settled on the top of the tower just as the picture was taken. January 2012.

A key, ubiquitous communication node in a networked city like Philadelphia is the cellular antenna and cellular tower. In addition to connecting mobile phone calls, these cellular antenna create the ethereal link between an individual’s smartphone and the Internet. To check an email, find directions with Google Maps, interact with social media, or to access any number of other uses of the mobile Internet requires these ubiquitous, monotone rectangular boxes to be mounted atop high places throughout the landscape. The ‘always-on’ nature of mobile connectivity is created through the maintenance of these cellular networks. The individual device, such as an Apple iPhone, may fit in a pocket, but the background network is immense. Data centers house the servers which contain our digital footprint and a vast array of fiber-optic cabling transmits this information, and the final connection to the user is made through cellular antenna. While the design and utility of that iPhone is of particular concern to the user and to Apple, the design of the infrastructural support to that device often looks like a haphazard afterthought.
In a city such as Philadelphia, these antenna are typically situated three ways. Antenna can be mounted atop commercial or residential buildings, often on former industrial structures such as water towers or smokestacks. They can be located at the top of electrical transmission towers, or they can occupy freestanding towers dedicated specifically to providing mobile connectivity. Freestanding cellular sites in Philadelphia often occupy the interstitial margins of the city, wedged into an empty lot alongside a major roadway or towering over a residential neighborhood. The infrastructural aesthetic for cellular equipment seems to focus on presumptions of anonyminity as well as functional concerns placed before formal design. Muted colors such as whites and greys dominate, with little attention paid to the impact on connecting the design of the structure with the adjacent neighborhood. At the street-level, these towers and their attendant ground-level equipment are typically surrounded by a chain link fence displaying some information about who owns and operates the tower, such as AT&T, as well as one or more ‘No Trespassing’ signs. While these ‘No Trespassing’ signs are a legal necessity for practical reasons as well as safety reasons, it is worth considering how mobile communication, this system that provides connection to each other and to the Internet occurs through spaces that are separated from the urban landscape itself, sequestered behind fences while at the same time towering over the surrounding area.

As the individual device in the hand of the user becomes a normalized element in everyday life, the impact of mobile communication infrastructure in the landscape itself is overlooked. The hyper-designed object of an iPhone cannot function without the connective background provided by cellular antenna. While the utility of mobile telephony is contained on the screen of that iPhone, the impact of the network on the landscape itself is distinctively physical and visible, located in equipment like these cellular towers.

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