2021 | Government

Council approves change to pave the way for expanded 5G coverage

Legislation allowing more small antennas was debated for years

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The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday approved a change aimed at increasing 5G access by allowing the installation of small cell antennas countywide.

Seven council members voted for the zoning text change — Tom Hucker, Gabe Albornoz, Hans Riemer, Nancy Navarro, Evan Glass, Andrew Friedson and Craig Rice.

Council Members Will Jawando and Sidney Katz were opposed.

The zoning text amendment approved Tuesday will allow 5G small cell antennas and equipment in residential areas countywide, with limits on where they may be.

The smaller equipment used for 5G networks can be placed closer together. That creates a more robust, faster network, versus 4G towers, which often stretch hundreds of feet into the air and are more spaced out.

The latest legislation, which Riemer spearheaded, incorporates changes by the full council and by the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee. The changes include:

  • A proposal from Rice to set the minimum height for streetlight pole replacements for 5G technology at 20 feet
  • Another proposal from Rice on pole replacement heights in Commercial/Residential, Industrial, and Employment zones. The pole must be at least as tall as the one it’s replacing or as the tallest one within 50 feet, whichever is taller
  • Friedson’s proposal that replacement poles meet a “preferential placement” standard: close to intersections, close to property lines between dwellings and “along the non-front-facing side of residential properties, or abutting properties used for a non-residential purpose.”

The 5G proposal has been a contentious issue for the County Council for years.

Supporters say the change to expand the placement of 5G antennas is needed because other jurisdictions in the region have adopted laws on where and how antennas can be placed, putting Montgomery County behind.

County Executive Marc Elrich had called for the council to convene a task force, delaying a final vote. He also sent memos during recent meetings recommending amendments. 

Opponents have said the legislation was being rushed through, and have complained about possible negative health effects due to the antennas.

They have previously cited a 2018 study from the National Toxicology Program headquartered at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The study showed that extremely high doses of radio frequency radiation — the transfer of energy of radio waves — were linked to cancerous heart tumors in male rats.

But the National Cancer Institute says radio waves are non-ionizing, meaning they don’t have the energy to break apart DNA and cause cancer. The World Health Organization has said radio frequency radiation is “possibly carcinogenic,” but that designation also applies to talcum powder and ginkgo extract. 

On Tuesday, Katz and Jawando brought up another reason to delay a final vote: the possible effect of pending court cases on a Federal Communications Commission order.

Hucker said before Tuesday’s vote that the county attorney’s office has said the county could be in legal trouble if it didn’t pass a law to respond to that FCC order, which was released in 2018. The order set guidelines on how 5G should be deployed in localities nationwide.

But Jawando said before his vote that a case before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals challenges the FCC order, in part because its frequency guidelines haven’t been updated since the 1990s. 

“If they uphold the order, I’ll be the first one to vote for it the next day. … [But] for that reason, I can’t in good conscience support the final [zoning text amendment] today,” Jawando said.

Katz agreed with Jawando, saying there are outstanding legal issues he wanted resolved before a final vote.

But others on the council said the issue has been debated for years, and the longer the delay, the worse Montgomery County would be compared to other jurisdictions.

Rice, who has worked on wireless technology and broadband issues as part of the National Association of Counties, said he’s heard the argument that antennas could be a health risk for disadvantaged communities. 

But doing nothing to advance 5G technology will hurt those communities and anyone else who doesn’t have access to high-speed internet, he said.

“Please don’t hide behind the auspices of racial equity and social justice when, in reality, it’s the exact opposite,” Rice said about that issue.

Navarro said the pandemic has changed how people work, along with other long-term changes that will require the installation of 5G small cell antennas.

“So much has happened in 2020 that has shown us a lot of permanent changes that are not going to go away,” Navarro said. “What’s going to happen with telecommuting? What’s going to happen with telehealth? … The pandemic has accelerated a lot of these changes in a permanent way.”

“Change is happening rapidly,” she added, “but at some point, we’re going to have to decide: Do we choose to stay behind or are we going to meet this moment?”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com