Left: Hermes painting on the roof of a clock tower from a crane. Right: A fake chimney on top of a building.
All pictures courtesy of Anton Hemes and Camouflage BV unless otherwise stated. 

The Everyday Locations Used to Hide Internet Antennas

In the Netherlands, the spire on your local church might be fake.
Tim Fraanje
Amsterdam, NL
October 22, 2020, 12:09pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

Anton Hermes is the head of Camouflage BV, a Dutch company devoted entirely to the little-known art of antenna camouflage. You probably know antennas as the metal threads that send and receive radio waves so our internet and phones can function. Often, they’re placed in rural areas, but many hide in plain sight in our cities, thanks to companies like Camouflage disguising them as chimneys, windows and church bell towers.

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The first generation of cover-ups mostly resembled improbably tall and skinny trees, but these days they’re much harder to pick out. One serious limitation is that the camouflage has to be made out of polyester, since other building materials block radio waves.

The number of antennas in cities has skyrocketed in the past decade – in the Netherlands alone, it increased from 25,000 in 2013 to 47,000 in 2020. And according to Anton “Antenna Man” Hermes, we’ll only be adding more in the next five years, as the new 5G network rolls out (he said 5G antennas will be smaller in size, but there’ll be even more of them).

Materials to camouflage antennas

Materials replicating wood and stone used to camouflage antennas.

Curious about his unconventional job, I met Hermes at a church in a small town 50 kilometres south of Amsterdam. One of the church towers had three antennas on it, covered in a red casing. A fourth antenna had already been painted to look like the church’s brick wall and was almost invisible to the naked eye. Hermes said lots more were lurking inside the tower.

Inside the church, a morning funeral service had just wrapped up. “We often have to take a break [from building the camouflage] due to funerals and weddings,” he said. “It’s challenging sometimes.” Hermes opened a wooden door. “Only staff and phone service providers go here,” he said, taking the stairs up the church tower.

Halfway up, he opened another door, unleashing a wave of heat and sound. The alcove stored the servers that connect to the antennas and make sure we’re all connected to the internet. Once we reached the top, right up next to the church bells, I was shown the antenna he’d just covered up. I had barely noticed it was there.

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Antenna inside a church, under construction

Left, a church in the middle of a renovation. Right, the equipment probably paying for the renovations.

According to “Antenna Man”, this is far from the only church tower that doubles as a mobile tower. “I’m from a Catholic village, and the church there has a much smaller congregation these days,” he said. Fewer people means less money in the collection bucket – so this church, like many others, has been forced into an improbable alliance with telecom companies.

Churches and phone companies started cooperating about 18 years ago, around the time the 3G network was introduced. Initially opposed by clergy higher-ups, ultimately churches recognised antenna camouflage as a potential new source of revenue for the expensive upkeep of the old buildings.

According to Hermes, churches make between €4,000 and €8,000 per telecom provider, depending on their location. Each company decides which towers are a good fit for their antennas. This church works with three providers. “The contracts often run for ten years, so you do the math,” Hermes said.

Fake church windows

Fake church windows.

Antennas hidden in a church

A very similar before and after shot of a real church spire replaced by a fake one – and that’s exactly the point.

Recently, people have started rejecting the idea that antennas are a neutral and essential part of daily life. The 5G rollout has been plagued by conspiracy theories, and the pandemic has only intensified the backlash against 5G, with new conspiracies mistakenly linking 5G to the virus. “It’s been scientifically proven by the RIVM [the Dutch national health institute] that there are no associated health risks,” Hermes said. But for “believers”, his coverups can provoke suspicion.

“This war against antennas upsets me,” said Hermes. While antennas have been a hot-button issue before, the recent backlash has been much more extreme. Online outrage has turned to vandalism, with antennas being set on fire by conspiracy theorists. “In 2018 it was two, but in the past year 25 have already been set on fire,” Hermes said.

A fake roof on a clock tower.

A fake roof on a clock tower.

Hermes wants to make clear he is not part of some kind of 5G conspiracy cover-up. For now, he says there are many more exposed antennas than camouflaged ones. Seeing as companies don’t want their antennas burned by conspiracy theorists, Hermes will probably be busy for the foreseeable future.