Zoning for our wireless future
November 6, 2019
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.
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 Councilmember.Riemer@montgomerycountymd.gov to share your thoughts.
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.