County Council President Hans Riemer speaks at a public hearing

Montgomery County residents are urging County Council members to show caution in the race to establish the next generation of communications networks.

Business representatives, on the other hand, are arguing that slower cell phones could lead to sluggish economic growth. 

The council heard both sides of the debate Tuesday night during a public hearing on a bill changing county rules for placing telecommunications towers. The measure offered up by County Executive Ike Leggett would, among other things, allow more antennas in downtown areas such as in Silver Spring and Bethesda. 

Ginanne Italiano, CEO of the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce, said expanding service is essential for doing business in urban environments. Customers rely on data to find shops and restaurants, and many employers use cell phones to communicate with staff, she said.

“How many of us in this room tonight don’t have their phones within arm’s reach and haven’t used it in the last hour?” she asked the audience of about 100. 

A representative from T-Mobile said developing 5G networks across the region could lure companies such as Amazon, which is eying Montgomery County in its search for a second corporate headquarters location. 

Amazon is checking out service maps in the areas it’s considering, said Edward Donohue of T-Mobile.

“They want to know that the counties, the folks that are looking to host the second headquarters, have eliminated to the extent that they can the impediments to wireless deployment,” he said.

But a number of residents shared concerns about the proliferation of small cell towers on utility poles near their homes and schools. The legislation on the table would permit companies to set up these antennas on existing poles in mixed-use areas without a public hearing, in certain cases. 

Donna Baron of North Potomac said her neighborhood is slated for dozens of towers, and she’s concerned for the well-being of her community. 

“These 5G towers would emit radiation into our yards, our homes and our bodies 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” she said. 

The towers will also detract from property values, she said.

Susannah Goodman, representing the Somerset Town Council, objected that the bill would reduce required tower setbacks from 60 to 20 feet in residential areas. 

And Gaithersburg mother Lisa Cline asked council members to add buffer zones around schools and daycare centers. She pointed to other jurisdictions that have established such restrictions.

“So cutting and pasting is one way to approach this,” she said.

Donna Freshwater of North Potomac also asked council members to slow down. 

She said the wireless industry hasn’t yet produced scientific evidence supporting the safety and reliability of 5G networks. So while she’s always been an early adopter of technology, she argued for caution in this case.

“I’ve loved all the gee-whiz and cool stuff and ideas since the first brick phone,” she said. “But in a sense, I’ve grown up, and now believe that just because we can doesn’t mean we should. These untested technologies are at this time not ready to be unleashed into our lives.”

A cCouncil committee is tentatively scheduled to take up the bill May 3. Council President Hans Riemer said officials will consider all of the testimony. 

Federal law restricts the county from regulating wireless infrastructure based on health and safety concerns, Riemer added. 

Leggett sponsored a series of public forums in the past year to hear from community members about the issue of small cell antennas. Some people have mentioned the potential health effects of radio frequency emissions from antennas placed near to homes, and a bill previously before the council sparked significant community pushback because of its impact on neighborhoods.