The apotheosis of the combination of religious iconography with cellular technology may be the cell tower disguised as a cross. There’s a striking example near my university in Tampa, Florida, on the grounds of the New Life Tabernacle Church. The cross stands out at the edge of church property near the northbound lanes of Interstate 75. At about a hundred fifty feet, it’s much taller than the palm trees along the road, and it glows bright white against the blue sky.
From the highway, the cross looks bright white and thin, almost delicate. Up close at the cell site, which is located between a grassy soccer field and a retaining pond, the steel poles look grayish and a little weathered. The tubular upright is enormous, bolted together in three large segments and slightly faceted. I know that the top is packed with antennae, amplifiers, relays, and cables. Standing close to the tower and looking up, I can see large ventilation holes in the upper segment and a small lightning rod sticking out from the very top, too fine to be visible from the highway. (Tampa is supposedly the lightning capital of North America.)
The day I stopped I got lucky: a technician opened the gate and let me walk inside the security fence to look around at the ground space, a rare privilege, where I saw a freshly poured concrete slab for a second carrier, T-Mobile, soon to be colocated there. (The current lease is with Verizon.) This will require an additional set of equipment, including a new tier of antennae inside the cross, and new cables to join the existing red, green, and blue bunches that now emerge from a low porthole and run across the ice bridge (as they call it) to the switching box. That day, the new backhaul cable was already buried in a trench with fresh dirt on top, headed underground toward the nearest network switching station. A metal cabinet contained a rack of eight batteries, and a propane tank was hooked up to the existing generator.
For an evangelical Christian church like this one, a prominent cross is already an act of communication, a kind of spiritual semaphore. The pastor told me the congregation fully supported the construction of the cross for this reason, but some local residents outside the church telephoned to complain that the money for construction should have gone to feed the hungry instead. From the pastor’s point of view, Verizon’s approaching the church was providential. He quoted a Bible verse—“The children of the world are often wiser than the children of light” (Luke 16:8)—to say that the church has to market itself in order to reach the community. And of course, as he might have added (but did not), the lease provided welcome income.
Steven E. Jones is the DeBartolo Chair in Liberal Arts and a professor of English and digital humanities at the University of South Florida. He is the author or editor of eleven books, including The Emergence of the Digital Humanities (2014).
This essay is excerpted from Cell Tower, part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series.