On top of the world with a wireless-antenna engineer (photos)

Wireless broadband provider Towerstream takes CNET on a tour of one of its buildings in Manhattan to show what a typical wireless-antenna engineer does. Those with a fear of heights need not apply for this job.

Marguerite Reardon
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
1 of 10 Sarah Tew/CNET

Straight to the top

NEW YORK--Towerstream, a company that provides wireless-broadband services for businesses, uses the rooftops of seven Manhattan skyscrapers to mount its antennas, which it aims directly at customers' buildings. The company invited CNET photographer Sarah Tew and me for a bird's-eye view of how their engineers manage and maintain these antennas. So up we went to the 42nd floor of 41 Madison Avenue.

2 of 10 Sarah Tew/CNET

Where it all happens

Towerstream houses all its routing and switching equipment, which transmits the wireless communications from the antennas on the roof to fiber that leads to the Internet. The company, which has about 2,600 customers nationwide and roughly 700 customers in New York City, has a total of nine points of presence or POPs in New York City, including one in 41 Madison Ave. as well as at the Empire State Building and the Met Life building.

3 of 10 Sarah Tew/CNET

The brains of the operation

These points of presence consist of routing and switching gear that is housed in metal cabinets. The antennas are mounted on top of the building and connected to the equipment using a series of cables. Towerstream uses a wireless technology called WiMax, and it can deliver download speeds to its business customers between 1.5Mbps and 20 Mbps.

4 of 10 Sarah Tew/CNET

Up, up, and away

Angelo Caracausi, who has worked for Towerstream for six years, is taking us on our tour. He is one of 70 wireless-antenna engineers and contractors who installs and maintains Towerstream's antennas. Here, he climbs the metal ladder to the next level of the roof, where he will show us how he scales tall buildings and hangs over the edge of 40-plus story buildings. For me, simply climbing the ladder to the next level nearly gave me a panic attack as my fear of heights kicked in.

5 of 10 Sarah Tew/CNET

Safety first

Caracausi steps into his harness, which he will attach to the antenna when he is perched on the edge of the roof to do some maintenance work. Caracausi's boss, Vice President of Engineering and Operations Arthur Giftakis, said that safety is a priority for the company. Every tower engineer is required to go to tower climbing school. And they must satisfy federal OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) training, which entails learning how to wear the harness properly and attach it to the antenna. They also learn under what conditions it's safe to actually work on an antenna. Giftakis knocked on a steel beam, as he told me that in his eight-year career with Towerstream, there has never been an accident or incident where someone has gotten seriously hurt working on an antenna.

6 of 10 Sarah Tew/CNET

A walk on the wild side

Caracausi walks around the perimeter of the building to an antenna. When a customer orders a high-capacity link, such as a 20Mbps service, a point-to-point radio connection needs to be established. So Caracausi has to manually point the antenna at a receiver at the customer's building. There can be an awful lot of tweaking that needs to be done to establish the connection. Caracausi said he recently spent eight hours in the harness, dangling 100 feet from the ground along the side of the New York Times building on 8th Ave., adjusting and readjusting the antenna until the installation was complete.

"What was scary about that situation was having the other guys lower me into place," he said. "At least if I'm repelling down a building, I am in control. But letting someone else lower me is a little scary because I have no control."

7 of 10 Sarah Tew/CNET

Job description: Must not be afraid of heights

Caracausi, who worked as a field technician in telecommunications for 18 years before coming to Towerstream, said he has never been afraid of heights, which is a good thing considering that in this picture he is climbing onto a ledge that is 42 stories above the street with no ledge below to catch his fall.

8 of 10 Sarah Tew/CNET

Beware of summer storms

Caracausi said he is most afraid of lightning storms when working on top of a skyscraper. Most buildings have their own rules about when workers can and cannot be on top of the roof working. "For some buildings it has to be 70 degrees and clear skies," his boss Giftakis told me. For Towerstream, if the building permits it, the only weather that keeps the engineers off the roof is freezing rain or lightning, Giftakis said.

9 of 10 Sarah Tew/CNET

Bird's-eye view

Bad weather isn't the only thing that can bring unexpected danger to Caracausi's day. In the spring, while trying to set up a new customer from the top of the Met Life building, Caracausi and his co-worker encountered a mama and papa falcon and their baby chicks.

"The mama bird came right at us, literally within a foot of our faces," he said. "And she looked like she was going to tear our eyes out. We got out of there as fast as we could."

He said that the New York City Parks Department came and built a small area for the birds. But when Caracausi returned, he said his co-worker, armed with pepper spray, watched out of for the birds while he worked on the antenna, constantly looking over his shoulder for an angry falcon to appear.

10 of 10 Sarah Tew/CNET

Falcon feed

Caracausi is reminded of the falcons that have made the Met Life building their home while working on other rooftops in Manhattan. At 41 Madison Ave. he shows us evidence of a falcon meal. Apparently, falcons fly to other roof tops with their prey clenched in their beaks. This picture is a shot of small bird carcass, which was likely the remains of a visiting falcon's lunch or dinner.

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