A Look Back: Building the Nation’s Cellular Infrastructure

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Freese and Nichols

This article is part of our continuing coverage of our 125th anniversary. It is adapted from Continuing the Journey, our history book that covers Freese and Nichols from 1995 through 2015. Read the book online.

As cellphones became widespread in the 1990s, Freese and Nichols helped build the infrastructure that makes them possible. Once the Telecommunications Act of 1996 freed the way for large-scale development of telecom facilities, the service providers rushed to develop their cellular networks as quickly as possible. All across the nation – from Miami to Chicago, Los Angeles to New York – Freese and Nichols performed hundreds of projects for at least 20 telecom clients, including AT&T, MCI, Nextel and Sprint.

Called on to design a wide range of infrastructure, including antenna towers, switch facilities, cable headends and fiber optics sites, Freese and Nichols assembled a multidiscipline telecom team. It was made up of structural, civil, electrical and mechanical engineers; plumbing designers; architects; and environmental scientists.

“It was a fun time — it was very busy,” said Division Manager John Dewar, who at the time was a structural engineer on the telecom team. “We’d get a phone call on Friday at 4 p.m., and they would ask us to send a team to New York that Sunday because they were going to convert, say, the 58th floor of some skyscraper into a telecom site, and they needed it all done within a month. We were constantly being flown across the United States.”

As cell towers began to proliferate, so did public opposition to them. one challenge facing the Freese and Nichols telecom team was disguising the antennas to alleviate the concerns.

“We put a lot of the antennas on billboards and office buildings in ways that hopefully were not too objectionable to the public,” Dewar said. “Just about anything that was vertical, if we could mount it on there, we’d do it, and try to mask the look so it wasn’t too ugly.”

The team also performed many projects in urban business districts, renovating older buildings to house telecom functions. Many of these buildings had been originally designed for offices, so they required significant engineering work: structural modifications to bear the weight of the heavy equipment; mechanical overhauls to handle the heat loads coming off the equipment; and sophisticated fire suppression systems.

“These facilities were very sensitive to any kind of down time,” Dewar said. “Some of the sites we were working on would handle all the credit card transactions for the east Coast, and if that were to go down, then AT&T would have unhappy customers. So, we’d have to make sure they’d always have backup power and special fire protection systems.”

Eventually, as the majority of the national cellular network was constructed, tapered off. Freese and Nichols completed its last major telecom project in 2004, for a total of 398 projects in nine years.

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