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Curious Cbus

What's the deal with this mysterious downtown Columbus building?

Building with black windows with a downtown high rise in the distance.
Michael De Bonis
This building on East Naghten Street in downtown Columbus plays a crucial role in wireless networks.

Naghten Street can feel a bit desolate. For several blocks, it's warehouse buildings, half-empty parking lots and a fleet of parked semi trucks. Despite that, one building stands out. It looks a bit like an office building, a bit like an apartment building, but something seems off.

Steven Bell said his wife first told him about the building and he was intrigued by its unusual appearance.

“This is a weird building cause it has the communication tower with all the satellite dishes on it and all the windows on the building are all blacked out, and then there’s no company name on this building at all," Bell said. "There’s all these security cameras everywhere and there is never anybody here and if you look on Google Earth on top of the building, it's just filled with air conditioners.”

Bell submitted a question to WOSU's Curious Cbus project to learn more about what the building is and why it has such a strange appearance.

Steven Bell stands in front of the building with black windows.
Michael De Bonis
Steven Bell, of Columbus' Westgate neighborhood, stands in front of the building that sparked his curiosity.

A search through state and county records eventually pointed to one of the largest wireless carriers in the country, Verizon. But finding that answer wasn’t straightforward. Verizon is not listed as the owner of the property.

When WOSU reached out to Verizon, a spokesperson did not deny the company owned the building, but declined to participate in this story.

So, the building is part of a wireless network, but what does that mean exactly?

Professor Anish Arora is the chair of the computer science and engineering department at The Ohio State University and the faculty director of the university’s 5G and Broadband Connectivity Center.

He said the building is a mobile technology switching office, which houses the technology that routes our calls.

"What you're seeing here is basically one of the local switching offices in town," Arora said. "Arguably, a city like Columbus would have many of these switching offices to cover the whole town. And we might have on the order of 50 or so for some major carriers."

When you make a cell phone call, your voice is first converted into an electrical signal. This signal is then sent from your phone's antenna to the nearest cell tower antenna. The cell tower uses an available radio frequency to carry your voice information through the air. The cell tower then sends your signal via wires or cables to a switching office, which routes your call to its destination.

That could be to the landline system if you’re calling your dentist’s office, for example. Or to another switching center across the country, where it can be routed to another mobile phone via the closest tower.

This is a very basic overview of a pretty complex process that all occurs in a fraction of a second. Professor Arora said one way to understand it is to compare it to the Wi-Fi networks many people have in their own homes.

“So just like your devices at home are talking over Wi-Fi. And that's going into a router. The router is then connected to the modem. And the modem is taking that information and then forwarding it to the internet service provider at your home," Arora said.

So a home Wi-Fi network is similar to a cellular network, just on a smaller scale.

The technology inside the building on Naghten Street is part of the process of connecting your call.

Anish Arora is the chair of the Computer Science and Engineering department at OSU and the faculty director of the university’s 5G and Broadband Connectivity Center.
Michael De Bonis
Anish Arora is the chair of the Computer Science and Engineering department at OSU and the faculty director of the university’s 5G and Broadband Connectivity Center.

Regarding the building's appearance, Arora said it is likely a security issue. These networks are part of the critical infrastructure of the country.

"The way to think about it is that just like water and electricity are things that we depend upon in a fundamental way. Communications are like that," Arora said. "So from a cybersecurity point of view, you would want these facilities to sort of be just a little bit under the radar."

So in that sense, the building designers wanted it to blend in and not draw attention to itself. Not an easy task. But the truth is that this technology is all around us and does often blend in with all the other utility infrastructure we’re used to seeing.

Looking to the future of cellular networks, the use of big cell towers is probably decreasing because of 5G technology.

"Wi-fi links are getting longer and cellular links are getting shorter and both of them are at some point going to converge to being very similar," Arora said.

That means more antennas, but much smaller and densely placed in a given area. And perhaps one day, the technological process that needed to be housed inside a large building will be accomplished with a much smaller footprint.