Smartphones and tablets have pushed the amount of data streaming through cellphone networks up, way, way up 50,000 percent over the past six years.
And that means Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and others must keep spending heavily to upgrade their networks, because what was adequate in 2008 or 2011 isnt anymore.
The upside of that spending is that customers can use their devices for everything from watching videos to paying their bills while they are out and about.
But one of the downsides is that it requires new towers, along with new cell receivers/transmitters on existing towers and on utility poles and buildings.
The Wichita area has seen quite a few of those new towers in recent months.
The biggest push at the moment is coming from AT&T, which is in the midst of adding a number of new 140-foot steel cell towers in the Wichita, something not always greeted with joy by nearby residents, to extend capacity in uncovered areas.
But AT&T and the other companies are also adding many more of the so-called small cell units which are closer to 30 to 40 feet tall and are attached to utility poles or other existing structures. They are designed to blend in.
The phone companies move from 3G service to 4G service in the last four years is the indirect driver for all this need for more cell units, said Chris Kumke, manager of RF System Design for Verizon.
4G service is much faster and makes all those smartphone apps and streaming videos possible.
The technology change is not whats triggering the increase, Kumke said. Its the demand for that data that is made possible by change in technology.
Nancy Garvey, vice president and general manager for AT&Ts Greater Midwest Region, said the company installed three full-sized towers, called macro sites, in the Wichita area in 2013 and has four more in process so far in 2014.
The company will build more new towers in 2014 and 2015, but she wouldnt say how many. She included in the Wichita area nearby cities such as El Dorado and Hutchinson.
When more people in a given area try to send and receive large amounts of data such as movies through an existing signal, the signal slows. Theres a broad enough signal for Wichita, but not a deep enough one. Adding more receiver/transmitters allows more people to use more data.
Were doing this not so much to increase coverage as to increase capacity because of the demand for more data, Garvey said. Its primarily in urban areas where were pursuing densification to improve speeds.
AT&T will install small cell units to boost capacity in some high-use areas or in areas where there is interference such as downtown with its taller buildings.
The full-size towers serve an area of one to two miles, while the small cell units have a range of 1,000 to 2,000 feet.
Its part of the companys Project VIP rollout to add 10,000 macro cell sites and 40,000 small cells nationally by the end of 2015.
The company has spent $110 million in wireless upgrades in the Wichita area since 2010.
North side tower
But not everyone is happy to see the cell towers.
On April 8, a representative for AT&T Mobility asked Wichita City Council for a conditional use permit for a tower on a large lot on 57th North between Meridian and Seneca. The site sat on single-family zoning in the middle of neighborhood with larger lots. It was acceptable in the zoning, as long as there was a conditional use permit. It had the OK from the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission.
The company said this was the best location from a coverage standpoint and there werent spots on existing towers available, according to the minutes from the council meeting.
Many in the neighborhood turned out to protest. Some complained about having to look at 140-foot tall steel tower; others thought it would devalue their homes or change the character of the neighborhood.
Geri Watts, president of the North End Riverview Neighborhood Association, said such a tower shouldnt be built in a neighborhood of single-family homes.
We didnt want it in an area that was single-family homes, she said. AT&T has the resources to make it work in another place.
The council voted it down, 7-0, saying the zoning wasnt correct for a cell tower.
Not all new towers
But that may not have to happen as much in the future because much of the increase in capacity will come from the smaller towers.
Brenda Hill, spokeswoman for Verizon, said the company finished its 4G capacity in the Wichita area in July 2011 and nationwide in 2013.
ATT came to Wichita later than we did, she said. From our perspective they are trying to catch up to Verizon.
Thats not to say the company will still add more small cell units here and there in the Wichita area as need requires, she said.
Its not about towers any more, its about small cells filling in gaps and matching needs, she said.
Sprint spokeswoman Melinda Tiemeyer said the company has no plans to add its own cell towers, although it expects to keep adding sites to handle increased demand for data.
They may not have to build their own cell towers. AT&T spokesman Chris Lester said that his company typically allows other cell companies to lease space on towers that it owns.