Officials from AT&T Wireless Services Inc., hoping to head off fights with neighborhood groups, told the Howard County Council yesterday of plans to build dozens of cellular phone transmission sites all over the county.
As AT&T Wireless -- the nation's largest cellular phone service, with 7 million customers -- prepares to move into the Baltimore-Washington market later this year, company officials are making similar presentations to officials from Harford County to Fredericksburg, Va. In Howard, the company will need various county approvals for its transmission sites.
The fifth company to offer cellular service to the region, AT&T Wireless already has built a dozen sites along Interstate 95 and U.S. 29 in Howard, all on properties where such sites are automatically permitted by zoning.
But AT&T Wireless will need special exceptions and other county approvals to build the 40 to 60 sites it plans for Howard in the next several years.
As the service expands, the sites -- clusters of antennas positioned from 80 feet to 200 feet off the ground -- will reach into neighborhoods. AT&T Wireless hopes eventually to offer a service through which customers can use a single phone anywhere -- at home, at work or on the road.
"We know that as we get off the main roadway into residential areas, that's where it gets controversial," Christopher Doherty, director of public affairs for AT&T Wireless, told the County Council.
He said the company would work with county officials and residents to disguise the cellular sites on tall buildings, silos, light towers and existing cellular sites used by other companies.
Of 12 cellular sites already built in Howard County by AT&T Wireless, nine are disguised, Doherty said. Three required new towers.
He said that at least 85 percent of the cellular sites planned for the next several years could be camouflaged.
But Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, warned: "The community is concerned about having [cellular towers] dotted everywhere."
In the immediate future, Doherty said the cellular sites would be along Howard's major roadways, I-95, I-70, U.S. 29 and routes 100 and 32. Good coverage requires an average of one cellular site every three miles, depending on topography.
"Any time we can combine our technology with a public need, obviously it's more beneficial for the community," Doherty said after the council meeting.
AT&T Wireless ultimately plans to compete with local telephone service at home and at work. Using wireless technology, its phones would operate like normal cordless phones in those places. On the road, they would become cellular phones.
Baltimore attorney Paul A. Dorf, representing the company, said: "It'll be one telephone with one number where they can reach you anywhere, any time."