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Using Your Steeple as a Cellular Tower?

The capacity issues that are constantly facing the wireless industry are causing them to look deeper and deeper in to population and business clusters to meet the ever-rising demand of today's mobile society.

Churches make for a natural location for carriers to hide their antennae since they are usually one of the largest, pre-existing structures in every town. If the actual church structure itself does not work, many times there are other alternatives that can produce a positive outcome.

It is a reality in today's society that many churches are under tremendous pressures just to stay afloat. Attendance and membership are down. As such, giving is down, so church budgets are being asked to deliver more on less. Many churches have already been blessed with accommodating one or more wireless carriers, and we have yet to find a church that would not benefit from such relationships.

After speaking individually with a vast number of churches, most congregations tend to ask the same questions.

As you can well imagine, the No. 1 question concerns the health risks associated with Radio Frequency Emissions. As far as the Federal Government is concerned, this is practically a non-issue in terms of the emissions from a traditional wireless site.

While we have been able to find many articles in newspapers and magazines lamenting the health effects of wireless emissions, we have found most of them to have an emotional slant unable to cite any factual evidence.

We have done our own research (and we recommend you do your own) and have been unable to find any credible, independent, scientific studies that would lead us to conclude that these facilities propose any health concerns to people or animals. Of all the international studies conducted, the only demonstrable exposure to RF Emission risk occurs with the actual handset and not the "tower." 

More questions include:

Q:  Will the installation of a wireless communications facility affect the physical appearance of our building?
A:  Typically, most installations occur inside the steeple; sometimes there is the need to replace some materials, but this is your building, and you have final say as to any design and deployment that affects it in any way.  There are now many types of networks being built with many different types of technologies being utilized, many of which have "stealth" technologies associated with them.  It is our recommendation to keep all of your options open.

Q:  What if we do not have a steeple?
A:  Basically, the desirability of a site is determined by its latitude and longitude coordinates. If the coordinates work for the carriers, there is usually an engineering solution to make them viable. It might require the installation of a steeple, the construction of a site designed to look like a pine tree, cactus, or whatever would blend in the local landscape, or the construction of a traditional tower on the property. Again, it is your property, so you have final say.

Q:  How much money can be generated from these leases?
A:  Nationally, cellular rents average around $1,600/month per carrier, and the trend is for them to be going down somewhat. That is a result of the networks starting to mature and the fact that the majority of sites deployed today are for filling holes and solving capacity issues. An engineering analysis determines what the site means to their footprint, and from there you'll know what sort of rent your church could command.

Q:  What should we do if we are approached by a representative of a wireless company?
A:  Tomorrow, one of the thousands of site acquisition professionals swarming the country could knock at your door looking to use your church as a possible wireless site. At this point, many churches are tempted to try to "do the deal" on their own. Granted, sometimes a congregation has the qualified individuals to negotiate these agreements, but the vast majority of churches find themselves showing up to a gun fight armed simply with a sharp stick. It's wise, at this point, to bring in a professional to assist in the process.

Q:  What are the church's obligations?
A:  First and foremost, your church needs to look at this undertaking purely as a business transaction, and may require more or different evaluation than the typical item put before your board. A site lease agreement is a long-term commitment with long-term benefits, as well as long-term responsibilities. It will be important for your church to have a clear understanding of any taxation and liability issues that result from this additional and nontraditional source of income. Once a church comes to terms with a carrier, all that need be done is to allow access to the building for initial construction, allow for scheduled as well as emergency maintenance, and make sure the rent is deposited in the correct account.

Q:  Could we lose our non-profit tax status?
A:  The short answer is that you would, in most cases, have to do a whole lot more than lease space in your steeple to a communications company to jeopardize your tax status.

Q:  Who pays for the installation and maintenance?
A:  The carriers pay for all installation and maintenance costs. It is not uncommon for these sites to cost in excess of $500,000 to build. Since your site will be the part of the network that interfaces with the consumer, it is in a carrier's best economic interest to make sure that the site is well-constructed and well -maintained.

Q:  Do we have to accept a proposal?
A:  Your church is primarily your place of worship. Additionally, it is an important architectural structure and landmark to the community at large. You are the stewards of your building and are under no obligation to accept any proposal whatsoever. You should be proactive in this process internally and address the possibility of leasing to wireless carriers in its entirety with your congregation before you entertain offers from carriers. Hasty decisions made under pressure do not lend themselves to good outcomes.

This information is courtesy of SteepleCom, Inc., which works with churches and other non-profits to shepherd relationships between their facilities and the wireless industry, www.steeplecom.com.

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