Wireless tower revenue for churches gives new meaning to 'cell' group

With the explosion of wireless technology, and its increased demand for cell towers, churches are often a soft sell for phone companies offering lease revenue in exchange for hiding their towers on rooftops, steeples or crosses.

In most cases the church is approached by a cell tower company or wireless service provider, which negotiates a lease for an installation site that it will service and maintain. The church benefits by receiving rental income from the lease.

Trinity Presbyterian Church in Spring Valley, Calif. got its first wireless contract for cell receptors embedded in the sanctuary roof in the early 1990s. The church has since acquired two more cell sites, a 75-foot cross outside its fellowship hall and an artificial palm tree in the play yard of the church school. Each brings a revenue stream from a different cellular phone company.

"It helps keep expenses to where we can pay all our bills," said Ted Olson, business administrator at the church.

Olson recalled that monthly income for the first site began at about $800 but earnings for the three installations now average about $1,400 apiece each month as prices have escalated.

"We haven't had any problem," he said of the church's cell tower arrangements. "We keep getting offers to buy out the leases."


Intense competition
Offers from competitors to buy out existing cell tower contracts and pay higher rent is a common occurrence. It reveals the intense competition between wireless service providers trying to expand coverage and customers.

Olson said as a safety precaution the cellular companies measured the radio waves from the installations to make sure they were directed away from ground levels where people congregate. Trinity Presbyterian has a K-8 school with 140 students on its property.

Pastor Bob Gallina at Green Hills Baptist Church in La Habra, Calif. explained that the church got a cell tower 15 years ago, before he arrived in 1998.

"It's a revenue source," he said of the lease income. "What we chose to do is not put it in operational funds," he said. "It goes into a building maintenance fund."

Gallina said the downside of the arrangement is that it is a long-term agreement and it becomes an entrepreneurial venture of the church that requires dealing with corporate America. Companies can be aggressive about expanding the sites.

"I have decided that our flexibility as a church and perception as a church is more important than the dollars we receive from it," Gallina said.

Pastor Tom Goellrich at St. Paul's Lutheran in Fullerton, Calif. said that his church has been approached by wireless companies three or four times in the 10 years he has been there. What appears to be a newly constructed bell tower at one end of the church building is actually a cell phone tower.

"We were very particular that it blended in and looked like it fit with our identity and structure," Goellrich said.

The pastor emphasized that having someone who can help negotiate a contract is critical. He said it is important to make sure the contract is set up so there are no tax consequences.

"We sought legal counsel to make sure we were protected," he said. "We obtained an attorney who was familiar with cell tower contracts."


Some fear risks
There is no denying that cell tower placement can become an emotional issue. While the FCC has established radio frequency emission guidelines for cell towers that all companies must follow, not everyone is convinced that cell towers pose no health risk to those living nearby.

In April a group of angry parents forced California's Huntington Beach City Council to renegotiate a cell tower contract the city had entered into for a site next to an elementary school. Yet the local high school has four cell towers on its property.

CITA-The Wireless Association, an international nonprofit membership organization representing all wireless sectors, reported that the number of cell sites in service in the U.S. has been increasing at a year-over-year rate of 13.5 percent and totaled 242,130 at the end of 2008.

"Wireless is the way people live," said Rod De La Rosa, senior manager of external affairs, western region, for T-Mobile. "People are abandoning their landlines in favor of cellular phones only."

He is not exaggerating.

Last month the Centers for Disease Control released a study showing that, for the first time, more U.S. residents are choosing to use a cell phone over a traditional landline as their only home phone. Twenty percent of households had only cell phones during the last half of 2008. Some attribute the high-tech shift to the recession that has forced families to cut costs.

De La Rosa explained that choosing a cell tower site is based on science. And while churches are not targeted as potential sites, they may be in greater need of the income stream that comes with a cell tower contract than a for-profit entity.

"It is a win-win situation because the church is able to use the rent for things they need," he said.

The T-Mobile executive stressed that his company is not necessarily looking to build new structures, but to blend equipment into an existing location. He said the company works hard to achieve an aesthetic result at its installations.


Location, location, location
Cell tower sites are all about location. What makes property a good choice for a cell site is close proximity to a dense urban or suburban population area or a major roadway where there is not another cell tower within a mile. Local zoning ordinances that allow communication towers and elevation in relationship to the surrounding area also make a property desirable.

Ken Schmidt, president of Steel in the Air, a consulting firm that handles cell tower lease issues, said that opposition from neighborhood opponents can be difficult.

"A church can find itself being in the position of being a pariah in their neighborhood," he said. "That is the biggest drawback I see."

Schmidt said that as the industry is trying to expand into residential areas churches offer two advantages: They are often allowed to violate height restrictions such as placement of a church steeple and they can have smaller decision-making bodies which can simplify lease negotiation.

The cell tower consultant maintained that the country has not yet reached a saturation point when it comes to adding more cell cites.

"There is a need to get to the last mile," he said. "It is a tumultuous give-and-take between landowners who do not want towers in their neighborhoods and carriers who are being asked to provide coverage."

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