Following the destruction of the World Trade Center, SpectraSite Communications Inc., a Cary, North Carolina-based company, offered what it could to help businesses recover. The firm had an important, if unusual, asset: rooftops.
“You see those tapes of the buildings falling down,” says Katie Olszewski, who is SpectraSite’s asset manager in Manhattan, “and you see that huge broadcasting tower fall. We knew what that meant, but I don’t know if it was clear to other people.
“But that day, on Tuesday, as soon as you picked up a cell phone and tried to make a call, you realized how much impact it had.”
Following the towers’ collapse, when wireless communication was essential, the loss of the antennas was yet one more hurdle rescue workers had to overcome. Outfits from cell-phone companies and broadband providers to the New Jersey State Police all lost antennas in the disaster. For such companies and agencies, a tall rooftop in southern Manhattan is vital. So SpectraSite hustled to the rescue.
In the New York metropolitan area alone, SpectraSite controls 1,200 rooftops. In Manhattan, the company has 85 rooftops taller than 200 feet and a few up in the 60-story range.
SpectraSite makes deals with building owners to market their rooftops to people who need to put up antennas. Typically, negotiating space for an antenna and getting it installed takes anywhere from 90 to 150 days. A carrier pays between $1,000 and $4,000 a month for an antenna installation.
Fires were still burning at ground zero in New York when SpectraSite began getting calls about what kind of buildings it had; Olszewski immediately started talking to building owners to find out if they would make their rooftops available on an accelerated basis if companies needed space for antennas. “One man called and said, ‘Remember, we have these buildings if anyone needs them,’ ” says Olszewski.
“Every owner I talked to said, ‘Don’t worry about the paperwork. Here’s the name of a guy at the building to talk to. Let us know if there’s anything we can do.’ “
Indeed, four days after the attack, SpectraSite had buildings ready — and was just waiting for cell-phone carriers to make decisions and get permission to move trucks into cordoned-off areas.
One of the most appealing buildings in SpectraSite’s inventory is 20 Exchange Place, situated just blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, with a clear view west and, most important, a rooftop at 741 feet.
“There’s a lot of space up there and a great vantage point,” says Olszewski. “The first time I saw the Statue of Liberty in person, it was from that rooftop.”
Verizon also thought the space was pretty prime and quickly took SpectraSite up on its offer. Sometime this week, it will install a new antenna on the site without worrying about a formal lease agreement. A second cell company is putting up a roaming antenna on another SpectraSite building at 480 Canal Street.
Bit picking antenna locations is only the first task in the arduous process of restoring service. Unlike ramping up in crisis mode — which was done using portable coverage units — installing permanent antennas takes time, labor, equipment, and electricity.
But in the wake of the tragedy, the importance of those towers will never again be taken for granted.
“It is comforting to know that we are a part of an industry that helped so many say their final good-byes,” Olszewski says.
Charles Fishman (email@example.com) is a Fast Company senior editor.