New iPhone users may not need to pray for better reception much longer. A proposed AT&T cellular antennae cluster in the chimney of St. John’s United Methodist Church could be the answer to their prayers.

The project is still pending approval by archaeologists and historians because the church, located on Old Pecos Trail, is in a historic district.

If approved, the installation would be the latest in a nationwide surge of construction to increase cell-phone reception.

“The telcom companies are running rampant,” Elizabeth Oster, an archaeologist with the Santa Fe contractor Tierra Right of Way, says. Part of Oster’s job is to ensure that potential cell phone towers, antennae and the like don’t disrupt historic structures. She is working on the St. John’s project.

Telcom companies’ use of churches also has grown, both nationally and locally.

Numerous churches in town already have cell antennae in their bell towers and elsewhere on site. First Baptist Church has an AT&T tower; that church sits less than a mile away from St. John’s. Sprint approached Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi a few years ago, but church officials turned down the offer.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, there are 21 cell phone structures in Santa Fe. According to cell tower database, there are 14 towers within a four-mile radius of St. John’s.

“I have seen a deluge of applications in the past six to eight months,” architect Pilar Cannizzaro says. She reviews applications for cell towers across the state for the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division. She says companies have submitted 30 applications statewide within the past six months, including tower proposals at Santa Maria de la Paz Catholic Church and the Hotel Santa Fe.

“I can only assume that it is due to the industry becoming increasingly competitive,” Cannizzaro says.

Indeed, AT&T spokesperson Clare Littlejohn says “today’s consumers demand mobile connectivity,” citing a July 10 press release in which AT&T, the exclusive telcom provider for Apple’s iPhone, estimates a 160 percent increase in the company’s mobile broadband subscribers by 2012.

St. John’s Church Administrator Sue Byrne says concern about the appearance of the tower, voiced at a public meeting in May, led to AT&T’s proposal to hide a cluster of antennae inside a metal chimney, and then raise the exhaust vent 5 feet above the roof. Church trustees approved. Once Cannizzaro signs off on the project, the antennae are cleared for construction.

David Rasch, preservation planner with Santa Fe’s Historic Preservation Division, reviews projects such as the one at St. John’s, in the city’s historic districts. Rasch notes that “every company has holes in their service. They do research projects to see where they want them, to fill in the entire net.” Churches are good for “filling in” for a couple of reasons. For starters, due to Santa Fe’s building height restrictions, churches are typically taller than other buildings.

And, as St. John’s Senior Pastor Scott Penrod says, churches can use the money.

“There are 900 nonprofits in the community,” Penrod tells SFR, “and everyone’s scrambling for dollars.” He and Byrne declined to say how much AT&T will pay St. John’s, though Byrne says, “It’s not as much as we wished.”

Whatever dollar amount St. John’s settled on with AT&T, Tom Moylan thinks he could have gotten the church a good deal. He runs SteepleCom, a company devoted to helping churches and cell phone service providers make a deal that is agreeable to both sides. Its Web site  describes the company as “advocates for churches in a wireless age.”

Indeed, Moylan started his Massachusetts-based outfit 12 years ago when his church was approached by AT&T. That deal went through, and now there are three carriers operating in his church, paying a total of $76,000 per year for renting the space.

Moylan negotiates with church leaders and cellular carriers nationwide, noting that smaller churches—which arguably need cell phone companies’ rental fees more than their larger, better-funded counterparts—do not have the legal wherewithal to know if they are getting enough cash in the transaction.

Moylan also works with companies to determine the best placement for towers and antennae.

Lastly, Moylan addresses the ethical questions that church leaders invariably bring up in the course of doing business with cell phone service providers. Penrod says he has no moral objections to the tower, though Moylan says it is a question other churches often ask.

“I think Jesus would be in favor of this,” Moylan says. “Do you think He cares what goes on in the two-by-fours in the rafters? I don’t think so. He cares what’s going on in the hearts and minds of the people in the pews.”