Civic News

AT&T sees big future for small cells in Maryland

Antenna systems installed on lightpoles and buildings could help usher in 5G, and they're starting to pop up around Maryland, said AT&T's Mid-Atlantic president.

AT&T Mid-Atlantic President Marc Blakeman (left) speaks at City Garage.

(Courtesy photo by Andrea Stein)

Technology to support 5G is coming to Baltimore over the next few years, bringing theoretical speeds as fast as a gig per second to the region’s wireless networks. Such speeds—equivalent to what you can experience today with a direct fiber connection—are theoretical because the phones to support them don’t exist yet.

The antennas to support 5G do exist, though, and they’re beginning to pop up around Maryland, said Marc Blakeman, president of AT&T Mid-Atlantic. Known as “small cells,” these new devices squeeze antennas and low-power radio equipment into a package roughly the size of a pizza box. They’ll be installed on light poles and attached to the sides of buildings every few blocks, and will connect users on the ground to the larger cell towers that currently carry the 4G network.

Small cell, Blakeman said, is about “getting the network closer to the ground, closer to the customers, to allow direct contact with the cell tower.” Blakeman, who joined a panel called “The Future of Charm City” Thursday night at City Garage, noted that small cell technology will give a major boost to the existing 4G network before and during the changeover to 5G. If you think of the network as an English muffin, Blakeman explained, the small cells will “fill in the nooks and crannies of our cell network, to make it a ubiquitous network.” To date, AT&T has small cells up and running at the Ocean City Boardwalk and the Inner Harbor. Over the next 10 years, the company plans to install thousands more across the state.

AT&T will be pushing for legislation to expedite the process in the current session of the Maryland General Assembly.  Twenty-three states, including Virginia and Delaware, have already passed laws providing for expedited, statewide installation of small cells (the Virginia and Delaware laws passed in 2017). Legislation introduced last year in Maryland (Senate Bill 1188 and House Bill 1767) died in committee without a hearing. The 2018 Maryland bills were handled by the Senate Finance Committee and the House Economic Matters Committee; the current chairs of those committees—Senator Delores G. Kelley (District 10, Baltimore County) and Delegate Dereck E. Davis (District 25, Prince George’s County)—were not immediately available for comment Friday on whether similar bills would be introduced or receive hearings this year. Baltimore is currently considering small cell technology as a part of a master plan to improve broadband connectivity. And, at the federal level, the FCC weighed in on small cell in September with an aim towards removing regulatory barriers.


Thursday night at City Garage, Blakeman noted that AT&T has seen a 470,000 percent increase in data usage on its network since the advent of the smart phone. That trend, he said, will continue, with more people accessing the network, downloading more high gain content, and staying connected for longer periods of time. According to AT&T legislative materials, 5G will add jobs, bolster public safety, and help close the digital divide—the gap between populations that have access to broadband internet and those that don’t—by making wireless internet connections as fast as wired connections.

“That’s what the very near future of 5G technology is going to bring,” Blakeman said, “and small cell is how that’s delivered.”

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