Inclusion | Opportunity | Innovation

Zoning for our wireless future

Chances are, you’re reading this email on your phone. (Hi!)

I’d also bet that your phone is just one of several wireless or WiFi powered devices in your household.

In our increasingly digital world, wireless connectivity is essential to every imaginable technology, from phones and tablets to buses and Metro trains to manufacturing and medical equipment.

Wireless will be bigger and more pervasive in the future than today — that is as clear as anything could possibly be.

But the rules in Montgomery County that guide wireless network infrastructure are obsolete.

Without change, these rules will hinder our access to 5G wireless, the next generation of connectivity. They’ll even hamper our continued access to 4G.

I understand how County residents might take wireless service for granted. Much of Montgomery is served by the fastest networks available anywhere in America.

But that could change. Thanks to the near exponential growth of demand on our networks, they are becoming full. As they fill, capacity will lag or become less reliable.

5G, ultimately, will be more than a small step forward. It will enable near fiber-optic level speeds and capacity on any device.

To fix the problem, our wireless providers need to install network antennas on telephone poles and light poles. Up until today, cell phone networks have relied on large cell towers that cover large distances and operate at fairly high power.

In order to add capacity, strengthen the 4G network we all use today, and enable full use of the coming 5G technologies, cell network providers are seeking to use new frequencies by deploying a larger number of much smaller towers.

These “small cell” antennas operate at much lower power and cover smaller distances, but are able to carry a very large amount of data. The antennas fit on existing streetlights and electrical poles.

But our current zoning code was designed with big cell towers in mind, and requires that any cellular antenna be set back 300 feet from the nearest home.

Last year, the Council passed legislation sent over by County Executive Leggett to legalize small cell antennas in commercial areas in the County, but our obsolete rules still stand in residential areas.

That is why I have joined with my colleagues Gabe Albornoz and Craig Rice to introduce a zoning change to allow small wireless antennas to be added to utility or light poles, provided they are not closer than 30 feet to a home.

Why 30 feet? Well, the typical home is set 25 feet back from the street. With 30 feet minimum distance required, homeowners whose residences are closer to a pole than average will not bear a disproportionate visual impact.

You likely rely upon wireless. Will you have advanced networks at your home if your wireless company can only use utility poles that are farther than 300 feet from your house?

The answer is no, because most likely none of the utility poles in your neighborhood are farther than 300 feet from the nearest house.

No poles, no network.

Only 11% of pole are available for 5G under current rules

With our new proposed zoning change in place, companies will begin to build enhanced wireless networks along our streets.

What do WE get out of it? It is hard to know what benefits these networks will enable, as fast as technology is changing today.

But however you can imagine a device sharing information or connected to the internet, wireless will be integral:

  • Phones, tablets, laptops, computers, TVs, and everything we do with them
  • Video interaction with 911 to save lives in an emergency
  • Life safety monitors in homes and on our bodies
  • Environmental sensors to monitor the climate
  • Driverless vehicles to reduce crashes
  • Reduced energy use and carbon emissions, as Senator Chris Van Hollen recently explained

Without this zoning change, however, our wireless providers will not be able to install the new networks.

The companies will eventually take us to court, because Congress and the FCC have already established that local governments can’t block networks.

Why should we wait for a court order to do something that we know is integral to our economic success and way of life?

Let’s move forward and fix our zoning code to ensure that Montgomery County will continue to get state-of-the-art wireless networks.

We’ve never been on the wrong side of the digital divide. There’s no reason to go down that path.

Let’s keep our competitive edge in an increasingly digital world.

The Council’s public hearing will be on November 19, at 7:30pm. Come share testimony that evening. If you cannot sign up, send an email to the Council. Speak out on social media and tag @MoCoCouncilMD, #MoCoWireles

As always, email me at to share your thoughts.


Hans Riemer Signature

Hans Riemer
Chair, Planning, Housing, & Economic Development Committee

P.S., You might see some people claim that Radio Frequency emissions cause cancer. Safety always comes first, I agree. But, the American Cancer Society says “Cell phone towers are not known to cause any health effects.” Read for yourself what the ACS has to say about cell phones and cell towers, based on input from many scientific studies and expert agencies.

Then read this New York Times piece about 5G and health, and this piece about how Russian disinformation agents have targeted Americans with 5G scaremongering.

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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Statement by Councilmember Hans Riemer on Wireless Infrastructure

Over the past two years I have worked closely with County Executive Ike Leggett and several of my colleagues at the Council to support the future of wireless infrastructure in Montgomery County. Basically this is about whether your devices will be able to do what they are designed to do in the future. The industry is running out of capacity on wireless networks in the County due to growing demand (i.e., us on our phones, and everyone having multiple devices) and they need to place antennas at the street level. The industry is also working on a new technology, 5g, that will be way faster that 4g (think 40g), but also it requires antennas at the street level, rather that up on tall towers.

We successfully established rules for these antennas in our commercial areas this year, which was a great step forward. We need to address them for residential areas as well. We had a bill before the Council, prepared by the County Executive, and championed by Councilmember Craig Rice and me, to accomplish that goal.

Unfortunately amendments were introduced that essentially sought to obstruct deployment of wireless infrastructure in the future. This was a real concern because many people want to have good wireless coverage in their neighborhoods, whether to use devices for entertainment and communication, or to call 911, or to work from home, you name it.

Not to mention that the industry is watching us and wants to take away our local control over how this infrastructure can be placed, with legislation at the state and federal level. Regulating deployment is one thing, but trying to obstruct it is something else.

Rather than approve a bad bill that would set us back and invite State and Federal pre-emption, I pulled the legislation. I look forward to taking some additional time to work on it with the new County Council and I hope we’ll get it right next time around.

Wireless and fiber communications infrastructure is important to the future of the county, just like water, power, or transportation infrastructure. We need it all to grow and thrive. Local government must rise to the challenge.