Have you ever gone to a big sporting event or concert and not been able to use your cellphone because everyone else there also was trying to call or text at the same time? Frustrating, right?
Sean McLernon has. He remembers going to the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., in 2001.
"And it was a joke," the 47-year-old Johns Island resident recalled recently. "You couldn't dial out to save your life."
The days of that kind of stadium traffic jam could be numbered. And McLernon's North Charleston company is playing a discreet part in the ongoing fix.
In the past couple of years, wireless carriers, in conjunction with colleges and municipalities, have installed "distributed antenna systems," or DAS, in dense population centers, such as stadiums or skyscrapers, across the country. The idea is that dozens of lower-powered antennas embedded throughout a big public space provides more effective coverage during those high-traffic moments -- such as game day -- than just a few higher-powered towers.
If you've noticed more consistent service, it's thanks to such companies as McLernon's Stealth Concealment Solutions.
Stealth got its start nearly 20 years ago making simple roof panels to hide antennas. Since then, it has made everything from clock towers to several species of fake trees. Hiding the antenna systems in street lamps or in stadiums is its latest trick -- just in time for football season.
"It's the flavor of the month," McLernon said.
Out of view
Stealth's work isn't glamorous: Faux foliage and construction materials litter its windowless offices and its fenced-in warehouse just off Interstate 26. But the niche company has played an integral role in bringing improved game-day cellphone service to stadiums from the Southeast to the Midwest.
The SEC and Big 12 are "well-represented," Stealth Vice President of Operations Trey Nemeth said during a visit to the company's Fain Boulevard headquarters.
Stealth's business is mostly carrier-driven, McLernon said. They have an antenna they need to hide, and McLernon's team fashions a custom solution.
"You should try running some of this stuff by some head coaches," McLernon said, joking about how particular athletic administrators and alumni can be about their beloved stadiums. "Our best work is when you can't see it. If you can't find it, then we're doing our job."
McLernon said that in the past year his company has created concealment boxes and bins for stadiums used by football teams in Arkansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma, among others. Designing and manufacturing the pieces for stadiums can run $20,000 "and up," McLernon said.
In an email, Kenny Mossman, University of Oklahoma senior associate athletic director, said Oklahoma Memorial Stadium is outfitted with the antenna system and that the technology "has had the desired impact."
McLernon said Stealth has "quite a few other sites in the works." Despite seemingly brisk business, Stealth's stadium concealment work has not yet extended beyond college to professional sports or overseas.
McLernon said he isn't aware of any other companies that do stadium antenna concealment. "But that does not mean they're not," he said.
Peabody Engineering & Supply is one such competitor.
"The closest we've come to that is on college campuses," said Mike Trevor, who handles advertising and marketing for the California company.
"We would certainly love to bid on jobs like that," said Russ Simms, a designer and project coordinator for Peabody.
Though AT&T has installed distributed antenna systems in at least two dozen stadiums across the country from Seattle to the Oklahoma stadium and South Florida, the carrier has not done any such work in South Carolina, said company spokesman Josh Gelinas. He would not name AT&T's contractors or say at what call or data volumes the company begins to consider installing distributed antenna systems. The company also uses mobile cell antennas, or "cell on wheels."
"Where we invest our network, it's driven by density and demand," Gelinas said. "Where you have large outdoor stadiums or arenas, you have both of those things."
'A long way'
McLernon said the whole industry has "come a long way" since that Super Bowl he attended a decade ago. And so has Stealth.
Founded in 1992 by McLernon's father in Columbus, Ohio, Stealth has moved offices a couple of times and changed its name. Now 45 employees strong, Stealth has a fabrication facility in Mira Loma, Calif., and a steel and fiberglass-reinforced plastic fabrication plant on Buffalo Avenue in North Charleston.
All around the headquarters are photos of the company's work: a soaring clock tower in Michigan, an enormous upright pencil, and the balustrades on top of The Sanctuary on Kiawah Island, one of the few examples of Stealth's work around Charleston, which McLernon said is surprising "given the historic nature of the city."
Stealth handles stadium jobs much like its other work -- that is, by finding durable materials that blend in with the surroundings and allow radio frequencies to pass through. This often involves a "sandwich" panel of plastic, foam and fiberglass, McLernon said.
McLernon is in the concealment business, so you'll have to forgive him for not divulging which major South Carolina football program, the Tigers or the Gamecocks, is in the process of putting some Stealth in their stadium.
"I don't want to stoke the rivalry anymore than it already is," McLernon said.
But the secret is out, courtesy of the two colleges in question. Katie Hill, Clemson senior associate athletic director, confirmed an installation project is under way at 80,000-seat Memorial Stadium. The University of South Carolina is "exploring the possibility" for Williams-Brice Stadium next season, an athletics spokesman said.
McLernon said the demand for the technology isn't going away. "As long as people need to use their phones, we'll be hiding their antennas," he said.
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.