Councilmembers introduce zoning proposal to legalize small-scale equipment for 5g wireless

Riemer, Albornoz and Rice call next generation wireless
infrastructure “an economic development imperative”

ROCKVILLE, Md., Sept. 30, 2019—On Tuesday, October 1 three Councilmembers will introduce a zoning text amendment, ZTA 19-07, that prescribes new rules for the siting of wireless facilities in the County’s residential zones. The measure, sponsored by Councilmembers Hans Riemer, Gabe Albornoz and Craig Rice, aims to allow the deployment of next-generation wireless infrastructure, which will offer faster speeds, enhanced reliability and much greater capacity.

“The next generation of wireless technology will be profoundly more powerful than what we all use today,” said Riemer. “The opportunities for innovation and advancement in health care, education, transportation, agriculture, entertainment and many other sectors cannot be understated. I want Montgomery County residents and businesses to have access to next-generation wireless technology, but the County’s current zoning code effectively prohibits this technology in residential areas. This zoning change will fix that by enabling the deployment essential to supporting our tech devices both at home and in the workplace.”

“Connecting our County through the next generation of wireless technology will make our lives better in so many ways,” said Albornoz. “Imagine if a firefighter could be guided through a burning building by viewing the building layout in their helmet, or a paramedic treating a patient in an ambulance could be guided by a doctor miles away. This is the future, and we need to prepare for it by laying the foundation. This ZTA will get us there.”

“This ZTA is a step in the right direction for all County residents,” said Rice. “The tech industry is moving towards 5g wireless because they realize the evolution of technology has dramatically increased the number of high data users in our nation and throughout the world. Here in the County, we are seeing the increasing demand for stronger and more reliable signal service from our average tech user and especially from our small business owners located in residential areas and our budding entrepreneurs. ZTA 19-07 meets their needs, boosting their potential and consequently supporting local economic development.”

Current and future wireless networks will increasingly take advantage of millimeter wave spectrum above 24ghz, which means that they can carry a lot of information (every wobble of the wave can carry data) but they won’t travel very far. Thus, the technology requires many antennas that are closer to the device. While today’s technology relies on relatively few but tall macro towers, tomorrow’s technology will also make use of antennas on utility poles and streetlights. The problem is that Montgomery County’s zoning code does not allow these new wireless facilities in residential areas, where people also use their devices at home.

Accordingly, ZTA 19-07 does the following:

  • Allows wireless facilities on poles in the public right-of-way by “limited use” when those antennas are set back at least 60 feet from the nearest building, plus numerous other screening, color, and size/height conditions.
  • Allows wireless facilities on poles in the public right-of-way by “conditional use” when those antennas are between 30-60 feet from the nearest building, plus numerous other screening, color, and size/height conditions.
  • Does not allow antennas on poles that are closer than 30 feet to the nearest building.
  • Revises the conditional use process to comply with federal law by
    • affixing deadlines to all steps in the process to meet federal shot clocks.
    • requiring that the hearing examiner’s inquiry must determine the least visually obstructive location when ensuring provision of service.
    • allowing the batching of applications.
    • directing that appeals of the hearing examiner’s decisions go straight to the Circuit Court.

The impact of this proposal is that the industry is incentivized to use poles that are 60 feet or more from a building. When the setback distance is between 60 to 30 feet, residents will continue to have a voice in the process to argue that there are less obtrusive locations. No equipment will be allowed closer than 30 feet to a house or other habitable building.

The previous Council took these issues up in 2018 and passed ZTA 18-02. Then-Council President Riemer was the lead sponsor of this zoning change that allowed deployment of wireless facilities in mixed-use and non-residential zones. The previous Council also reviewed a residentially-focused ZTA in the fall of 2018, but Riemer did not bring the issue to a final vote because consensus on the measure was not reached.

Riemer added, “This new zoning measure also aims to disrupt efforts in the Maryland General Assembly and at the Federal Communications Commission to remove the County’s authority to control how these facilities are deployed. The County is fighting those preemption efforts, not by opposing next-generation wireless technology, but by arguing that we should retain local control over deployment because we can do a better job for our residents. This zoning change would exercise the local authority that we are fighting to protect. Our own standards are more protective of local concerns than the industry-supported proposals in the state or federal government.”

Riemer serves on the FCC Intergovernmental Advisory Committee (IAC) and as a member of the Telecommunications & Technology Steering Committee at the National Association of Counties (NACo). He has sponsored numerous resolutions and advisory recommendations as a member of these organizations and has advocated forcefully against federal preemption because the best and fastest deployment will only happen if local governments have a real seat at the table.

A public hearing for ZTA 19-07 will be scheduled at a later date. Read more about ZTA 19-07 here. Give us your feedback on social media using #MoCoWireless.

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Council oversight on public safety

Dear resident:

Picture for a moment the radios that first responders carry. These radios function by relaying signals through a network of dedicated towers placed around the County.

Firefighters, rescue and police officers need a new radio network. The current one is failing. Failing means that there are moments when the radio network becomes unreliable.

Radios and towers work as a system

Consider that firefighters in a burning structure or police officers calling for backup could get a busy signal instead of getting through. It has been happening. For hours one weekend this May, 75% of the channels went down.

A new system is nearly ready. County departments have been working to build the new 22 tower system for years. The “go live” plan for the new network is Fall of 2020.

Recently, however, there has been confusion as the County Executive moved to cancel two critical tower locations for the network, putting completion of the project into jeopardy.

Some residents nearby did not want a radio tower where it had been planned, inside of the cloverleaf intersection of Georgia Avenue and the ICC. They spoke out. A handful of residents also protested a proposed tower near the Potomac River.

Map of the 22 public safety radio towers

In response, the County Executive directed his staff to find alternatives.

Councilmembers became alarmed as we heard from firefighters and other emergency management personnel that without those two final towers, the network would not work as planned, particularly in Olney, Leisure World and the Potomac River basin.

“This issue is now a public safety emergency that requires immediate and swift action to avoid further increased risks to the safety of the citizens, and those public safety officers who risk their lives to serve them every day.” Montgomery County Firefighters Association

While searching for alternatives may sound reasonable, as it turns out, you can’t remove 1 of the 22 towers without:

  1. Deploying a network with coverage weak spots where towers are missing
  2. Reconfiguring the entire network, which is designed as an interdependent whole, possibly requiring a delay from the Fall 2020 go-live, meaning the County continues relying on the failing system for longer
  3. Searching for alternative locations, which has no clear timeline for success
  4. Building alternative towers that could cost taxpayers millions more than planned

None of these consequences are acceptable. That is why the Council voted unanimously to approve a capital budget amendment requiring the executive branch to move forward with the network as planned. Watch a video of my remarks on the budget amendment.

While the Council very much regrets the dis-satisfaction these two towers have caused for some, there are tens of thousands of residents in the Olney area and a million of us around the County who are counting on our first responders to be able to do their job, every minute of every day.

If an alternative location were available that would not delay the full network, cause the area to have lesser coverage in the interim, and cost the County millions of dollars, we could do that. But there isn’t.

In response to Council questions about the final remaining tower, Bretton Woods, the County Executive’s representative said, “we have run out of time because the process to research, finalize location, permit, build and test this alternative site is predicted to take more than 18 months. The Executive directed staff to condense the process as much as possible, but at this late date, the alternative site cannot be guaranteed to be ready for the December 2020 deadline.”

And that is why we need to move forward without delay on this critical public safety initiative. With our unanimous vote, the Council is insisting on it.

Sincerely,

Hans Riemer Signature

Hans Riemer
Councilmember, At-large

Council Vice President Riemer, MCPS Superintendent Dr. Jack Smith to Speak at Landmark STEM Education Launch

“Invent the Future Challenge” kick-off at KID Museum in Bethesda on Thursday, November 30 at 11:30 a.m.,represents major investment in student-driven innovation

ROCKVILLE, Md., November 27, 2017—Council Vice President Hans Riemer and Dr. Jack Smith, Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), will be among the featured speakers at the kick-off event for the “Invent the Future Challenge” on Thursday, November 30 at 11:30 a.m. at KID Museum in Bethesda. This new public-private partnership brings together the County, MCPS, and KID Museum to make a long-term investment in student engagement with the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. It will bring hands-on STEM learning opportunities to children at every middle school in the MCPS system.

Cara Lesser, Founder and CEO of KID Museum, and Antonio Tijerino, President and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, are also featured speakers at the launch. KID Museum is located at 6400 Democracy Boulevard, Bethesda, Md. 20817. Elected officials, members of the press, and education leaders are invited to attend.

The “Invent the Future Challenge” is a competition which will engage middle school students in the STEM fields and 21st century technology and professional skills, with special emphasis on the areas of design/engineering and electronics/coding. Teams of middle schoolers led by adult coordinators will compete for prizes using Challenge Starter Kits which include the Arduino electronics platform. The partnership provides scholarships for intensive, skill-building pre-competition workshops for low-income students at KID Museum.

“I’m excited to be part of launching this new partnership between MCPS and KID Museum to bring high-quality, data-driven, maker-based STEM learning programs to Montgomery County students,” said Council Vice President Riemer. “Last February I held a Countywide STEM Summit to help build these kinds of connections, and it is a win-win for us to support a great local organization and bring sorely needed new resources to our middle school students. For several years I have worked hard to increase County investments in new approaches to STEM and maker learning. It is thrilling to see MCPS embracing KID Museum and bring STEM education to middle school students throughout the County.”

Council Vice President Riemer has been a strong advocate for increasing resources for STEM education in the County. He moved to establish a Coding Fund and Maker Fund in the County budget, which provide small grants to community organizations. He has prioritized sponsoring the annual Maker Faire KIDfest and providing grants to nonprofits like KID Museum and others, and hosted the County’s first STEM Summit in early 2017.

Free parking is available on-site. For information about transit to the event, visit http://kid-museum.org/location/.

For questions or further information, contact Jason Fasteau in the Office of Council Vice President Riemer at 240-777-7964 or
Jason.Fasteau@montgomerycountymd.gov, or emma@kid-museum.org. Information about the event is also available at www.kid-museum.org/invent-the-future.

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Montgomery County Files FCC Comments and Pushes NACo to Defend Counties from Attacks on Local Zoning Authority for Small Cell Facilities

ROCKVILLE, MD., March 9, 2017—Montgomery County filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), as part of the national Smart Communities Siting Coalition opposing a petition filed by telecommunications infrastructure company Mobilitie.

The petition filed by Mobilitie challenges local governments’ authority to manage the placement of, and charge rent for, communication facilities on public roads, sidewalks, and streetlights. The County filed Supplemental Comments indicating the County’s wireless policy has been successful. The County also asked that the FCC – which has exclusive jurisdiction to regulate radio frequency (RF) emissions – focus on completing the proceeding it opened four years ago to address the health effects on humans of RF emissions from telecommunications services.

This action comes on the heels of Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, County Council Vice President Hans Riemer, and Council President Roger Berliner successfully sponsoring a National Association of Counties (NACo) policy resolution that opposed efforts at the Federal and State levels to preempt local zoning authority for the siting of “small cell” wireless facilities.

“We recognize that some amendment to our zoning code may be needed to address small cell facilities, which may need to be deployed deeper in neighborhoods than macro cell technology,” said Riemer. “But communities should have a say over how the infrastructure is deployed, and we should be able to charge a reasonable fee for commercial use of our roads and sidewalks. We can reach a win-win solution that enables deployment while preserving community interests.”

In the filing, the County states it is unreasonable that the Commission leaves it to local government to explain to constituents why the Commission has not updated its radio RF emission standards in 20 years. The County also points out that the FCC has neglected, in four years, to complete its work on this very issue, while simultaneously finding time, at the request of industry, to consider whether more preemption of local decision-making for small cell deployments is necessary.

“Montgomery County must retain the ability to protect residents’ interest in not crowding neighborhoods with new poles.” said Leggett. “I am confident we can do so without sacrificing our goal to keep Montgomery County the most connected County in America. But local solutions, not federal preemption, are the answer.”

Montgomery County has worked constructively with residents and the wireless industry, reviewing 2,900 applications over 20 years. To date, 1,121 wireless facilities are deployed in 534 unique locations within the County.

“We must send a clear message that any preemption efforts at the Federal or State level on this matter are not in the best interests of our County’s residents,” Berliner said. “Our County needs to retain our authority to reduce the adverse impacts of small cell towers on our residents and determine what can be done to protect the quality of life of our neighborhoods.”

More small cells are needed to meet growing demand for wireless broadband. Small cells are installed as lower heights than existing tall “macrocell” telecommunications towers. Macrocell equipment is dumpster size, whereas small cell equipment is 120-qt camping cooler size. Montgomery County has received applications for more than 250 small cell antennas in 6 months, and anticipates another 500 applications in the next 18 months.

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