A new game to play while driving cross-country might as well be, “Spot the Cell Phone Tower.”

After all, in the past 10 years, the number of towers in the U.S. has doubled from 125,000 in 2001 to more than 250,000 sites, according to figures from the industry trade group CTIA-The Wireless Association.

Driving all these new towers is massive growth in the number of mobile devices connected to the Internet. The number of devices like smartphones and iPads has tripled in the past 10 years, according to CTIA.

Meanwhile, a quarter of homes no longer have a landline.

“The growth for usage has been off the charts,” Kevin Howell, president of Digital Skylines, recently told the Bozeman City Commission. Howell’s company helps wireless providers find and gain approval for new cell tower sites.

“People aren’t talking more, but downloading more and playing online games with friends,” he said. “Right now, we are finding one of the major uses of wireless is sitting on the couch at 7 p.m. at night to play on an iPad or an iPhone.”

To hide all the unsightly steel towers sprouting up, companies have disguised them as pine trees, church steeples, cacti, flagpoles, water towers and silos.

Bozeman has four large-scale towers, 25 feet tall or taller, said Assistant Planning Director Chris Saunders.

Each one, for the most part, is standard: plain, antenna-like metal stalks. One, located behind the, Chronicle building, is painted shades of blue to blend in with the sky.

Now the city is considering a fifth tower.

Verizon Wireless has applied to build an 84-foot-tall cell tower, this one in the shape of a pine tree, along Bridger Drive, an entrance to the city framed by views of the Bridger Mountains.

Verizon’s proposal has sparked questions about how much new coverage the tower would provide, what the city has the power to regulate and whether Verizon could avoid the city’s rules by moving their proposal to nearby county land.

Coverage Versus Capacity

There’s some confusion about whether the new tower would really allow people to get cell reception in more places.

If the tower is approved for 705 Bridger Dr., Verizon spokesman Bob Kelly said Bridger Canyon would get a few new areas with reception and fewer dropped calls.

“There will be some areas that would not have had coverage previous to this site going on the air, especially as you get into the canyon area,” he said.

Practically, it means that, instead of getting one or two bars on the northeast side of town, customers would get three or four, Kelley said.

That area would also get faster download speeds and other benefits, he said.

Verizon’s network engineers selected Bridger Drive because it’s “the optimum site” to expand capacity and coverage, Kelley said. Wireless works on line-of-sight, and the proposed site works particularly well for Verizon’s network.

Still, Kelley didn’t know exactly how far the new coverage would extend.

Howell, who was hired by Verizon as a consultant to develop the Bozeman site, said it wouldn’t be very far. The proposed tower might improve coverage a mile or so past the “M” Trail, an area that already has some coverage, he said.

But, Howell said, the purpose of the tower is to increase capacity rather than coverage.

“It’s about getting more capacity there,” he said. “That’s the point of the site, and that’s the point of all the sites that we’re working on.”

Cities Can Regulate, Not Prohibit

Under federal law, cities can’t ban cell towers.

Further, cities must have provisions to allow towers in residential neighborhoods, on historic landmarks and on environmental sites — anywhere someone might need to make a call in an emergency.

The federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 states that governments can’t prohibit a wireless provider’s ability to close a significant gap in service.

Communities also can’t challenge towers based on health and safety concerns. Some opponents have argued that living near a cell tower might increase a person’s risk of cancer or other health problems, but the American Cancer Society website says there is little evidence to support that.

However, cities can establish standards for the location and design of cell towers.

Bozeman adopted its rules in 1998.

Saunders said the federal act created a situation that radically expanded the number of people who could have wireless licenses. Bozeman realized back then that a flood of new tower applications was coming.

“Local governments saw writing on the wall that there was going to be a whole lot of new people coming into the market that didn’t exist before, so we got ahead of the curve," he said.

Wireless companies often pay property owners to rent land or put up a tower. In some heavily populated cities, people have rented out parts of their yards, infuriating neighbors.

In Sidney, Mont., Verizon recently offered to pay the city $700 to $800 a month on a 25-year lease with 2 percent annual rent increases just to install a tower near city hall, the Sidney Herald reported.

Bozeman city code is structured so that it’s easier to build wireless towers that are small or located in industrial areas, Saunders said.

“You could put one in a historic district, but it would be a terrific amount of work,” he said.

Bozeman code states that cell towers would only be permitted in a residential zone when there’s no alternative site or less intensive installation.

The city also reserves the right to hire a consultant to evaluate a wireless provider’s claim and bill the provider for the expense.

Similar Rules in the County

The proposed site on Bridger Drive has been zoned for industrial use since the 1980s.

Next door, parcels of Gallatin County land are outside the city’s purview, but should Verizon shift its proposal to county land, planner Chris Scott said the company would have to follow rules similar to the city’s.

Gallatin County has its own cell tower regulations, but they depend on whether the area is zoned and if the land is being leased or subdivided, Scott said.

In general, tower proposals are for developed areas — where people need to use phones — that have zoning and rules, he said.

That’s certainly the case with Bridger Canyon, Scott said.

Rules aren’t the only thing Verizon is struggling against. Since the proposal was submitted, the neighbors have started objecting.

They say the proposed tower would not only change the view for them and others entering and leaving Bozeman through the canyon but that it would also hurt local property values and put the brakes on a new “green-technology” subdivision going in next door.

City commissioners aren’t keen on Verizon’s plans either. They said a faux pine tower would look bizarre and asked the company to come up with alternative sites. The commission is scheduled to take up the issue again on Sept. 19.

Verizon spokesmen claim the land the company chose is the best spot available and that Verizon is doing its best to follow city code and appease opponents by disguising the tower.

Kelley said last week that Verizon had not yet submitted an alternative to city officials.

“We’re somewhat frustrated in not being able to move forward as quickly as we’d like with this site,” he said. “We think it’s going to offer a lot of benefits to our customers in Bozeman and Bridger Canyon.”

Amanda Ricker can be reached at aricker@dailychronicle.com or 582-2628.