On Auckland's Viaduct sits a steel rubbish bin with a secret.

An ex-Vodafone staffer - who can only be identified as "John R"- told the Herald that while it does collect rubbish, it also doubles as a secret cellsite.

Phone companies are increasingly using such "microsites" to fill coverage gaps in their mobile networks, sometimes disguised.

The rubbish bin was used as a clever example of this phenomenon.

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It sounded a bit bonkers, but when the Herald went to investigate, the bin (in front of O'Hagans, if you know the area) is not quite the same as the bins on either side. Its rubbish catcher only goes halfway down.

Vodafone NZ head of platforms Sharina Nisha confirms the bin is, in fact, an undercover cellsite.

It was put in place for the 2002/2003 America's Cup.

"The BTS [base transceiver station] unit was under the bin and the antennas were located on a nearby lamppost," Nisha said.

"This was to provide more capacity for the event and was removed a few years later."

Now, with the 2021 America's Cup looming, there's every possibility the bin will be pressed back into service.

The cellsite bin gave me a bit of chuckle, but of course cellsites are often very contentious - especially when full-size towers are involved.

Worldwide, telcos are making moves to disguise celltowers - some more successful than others. Pictured: a cell site in Arizona designed to look like a cactus. Photo / Pinterest
Worldwide, telcos are making moves to disguise celltowers - some more successful than others. Pictured: a cell site in Arizona designed to look like a cactus. Photo / Pinterest

The latest stoush is in Pirongia, near Te Awamutu, where 40 residents recently attended a meeting where there was a strong mood against a plan for a 20m Spark cell tower.

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Some saw it as an eyesore that would devalue properties, although one, Ray White real estate agent Neville Kemp, said the tower would attract more people to Pirongia and would not devalue properties.

"The worst thing for property values in Pirongia is our pathetic internet speed," he said. "As a Pirongia resident, I would be all for it. I welcome any advances in technology that are available."

A celltower disguised as a flag pole in Texas. Photo / Pinterest
A celltower disguised as a flag pole in Texas. Photo / Pinterest

Spark says the new celltower is needed to cater to the town's growing population. It will be 4G but upgradeable to the fifth-generation (5G) mobile network technology that Spark will start rolling out from July next year. In January, the telco also cited the need for better Rugby World Cup streaming in rural areas as a reason for the upgrade.

This morning, a Spark spokeswoman said the telco is "continuing to work with the community on exploring some options for a new site in Pirongia that works for the community and Spark."

A very similar barney took place over a proposed three-story celltower in Springfield, near Rotorua, which ultimately went ahead.

No need for tinfoil hat

I can't help Pirongia residents with their concerns about how their new celltower will look (maybe Spark can come to the party with something creative on that front).

But I can add some perspective on another concern: the alleged health effects of cellsites.

At the Pirongia meeting, Ward Councillor Clare St Pierre - speaking on her own account - said, "Such effects range from DNA damage, depression, anxiety, lack of concentration, insomnia and cancer."

A jockey races past an imitation cypress tree that disguises a celltower on the Old Mile at Ascot in Berkshire, England. Photo / Network World
A jockey races past an imitation cypress tree that disguises a celltower on the Old Mile at Ascot in Berkshire, England. Photo / Network World

Writing in the Herald recently, scientist Michelle Dickinson noted:

"The frequencies we refer to in mobile phone technology are all radio signals, and often referred to as RF or Radiofrequency radiation. For most people, anything with the word radiation in it sounds scary. It's not as intimidating as it might seem though - the word just means the emission of energy from any source.

"Too much exposure to radiation is thought to be bad for us, and linked to cancer. This is why we are advised to limit the number of medical x-rays we have a year. X-rays are a form of ionising radiation, and repeated exposure has been seen to damage our DNA, which over time has been shown to increase the risks of developing cancer.

An O2 celltower in Bedfordshire in the UK disguised as a fir tree.
An O2 celltower in Bedfordshire in the UK disguised as a fir tree.

"Radiation is split into two broad categories: ionising and non-ionising. Non-ionising radiation doesn't carry enough energy to 'ionise' or strip electrons from atoms and molecules. It therefore doesn't have enough energy to damage our DNA.

"The radiation emitted from radios, mobile phones, phone towers and Wi-Fi routers – RF radiation - is non-ionising."

At this point, the social media mob will be saying, "Ah - but 5G is much more powerful than 4G!"

To this, Dickinson says, "As the frequency goes up, the depth of penetration into biological tissues goes down. This means that 5G is even less likely to penetrate the body than the current technology that we use."

And tech commentator Paul Brislen - a cancer survivor himself - has noted that no "cellphone spike" has come through in Ministry of Health statistics.

He's right. The incidence of brain cancer in New Zealand actually dropped slightly (from 185 per 100,000 of the population to 172/100,000) over the first three years of 4G mobile networks' operation. And while some cancers have spiked (notably melanoma), cancer rates overall are slightly down on the mid-1990s, when cellphones went mainstream.