2021 | Opinion

Opinion: County needs smart limits on rights of way as wireless industry hopes for bonanza

Maps show that Montgomery already has widespread 5G coverage

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Our opposition to Montgomery County’s latest telecommunications towers zoning text amendment (ZTA 19-07) is all about the future.

We are fighting for the rights of residents to have meaningful voice about future use of our shared public rights of way, and specifically want to be sure wireless corporations respect the character and safety of all residential neighborhoods.

Rights of way are inside and surround all residential neighborhoods, including the front sidewalks of apartment buildings and condos.

Public rights of way are woven into the fabric of neighborhoods and are a veritable gold mine of existing infrastructure (utility poles, streetlights, lampposts, intersection signals, etc.). Wireless companies want to install antennas, radios and equipment cabinets in various configurations on those poles.

But what the wireless industry really wants — and what ZTA 19-07 grants them — is virtually unrestricted and heavily subsidized access to our public rights of way to install obtrusive wireless facilities that can and will be expanded.

The prize is billions of dollars in potential revenues by luring consumers to “cut the cord” and use cellular links for downloading entertainment and video games in lieu of cable/fiber.

ZTA 19-07 would be a bonanza for wireless companies and allow cell poles “by right” within just 30 feet of windows in all residential zones — and even closer with specially expedited (and industry stilted) hearings for “conditional use” approvals, whenever needed.

The ZTA for Montgomery County contains almost no requirements for concealments while allowing almost every selected pole to be made taller. Residents will be totally cut out of the process.

Truth be told, Montgomery County is already a regional, and perhaps even national, leader in state-of-the-art wireless deployment. Wireless providers would be hard-pressed to prove otherwise (and foolish in terms of potentially forfeited customer recruitments).

If you have any doubts about the high quality and comprehensive availability of 4G/LTE and also 5G — for those lucky few who can afford it — look no further than coverage maps posted on all three major wireless provider websites: Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.

Those coverage maps clearly demonstrate that 5G is all over our county, right now. And coverage is expanding and improving every day.

We took a look at roughly 270 applications submitted to the county’s Tower Committee between July 2019, when 5G antennas arrived, and December 2020. These applications were mainly for antenna “swap outs” on macro structures such as building rooftops, water towers, lattice towers and monopoles.

What we found was that on average, at least three “new radio” or 5G antennas were being replaced per application. That would mean the county now has at least 810 (and probably many more) 5G antennas, along with many thousands of 4G/LTE antennas. These numbers are rapidly growing.

Back-of-the-envelope math is the best we can do, because the county’s Tower Committee does not distinguish between 3G, 4G and 5G antenna devices and does not precisely tabulate current antenna inventory.

Very importantly, upgraded antennas — including 5G antennas — are already in  the Agricultural Reserve and even on cell poles in some residential areas, where antennas have long been allowed by zoning ordinances passed 20-plus years ago.

The bottom line: In the race for 5G, Montgomery County can go toe to toe with Arlington or D.C., or any other jurisdiction in our region, and have nothing to be ashamed about. We are in no danger of becoming a technological backwater of lost business opportunities and disconnected students.

Lest you believe we are failing emergency responders, the county appropriated more than $113 million in recent years upgrading emergency communications, including state-of-the art radios and building a dozen new emergency communications towers

The County Council is poised to take a final vote on ZTA 19-07 on Tuesday.

Residents have raised many objections about this bill and cautioned the council about the complexities of wireless zoning, while highlighting the county’s dismal record on wireless facility regulation.

We are strongly urging the council to pause and at a very minimum, create a work group with representatives of all stakeholders, including the industry, residents, impacted municipalities, and civic, homeowners and renters associations, to be sure the county has the best possible legislation for wireless zoning.

As coverage maps and numbers clearly demonstrate, there is no need to rush. Rather, the council’s top priority should be to assure that all residential areas and neighborhoods have fair, transparent, well-planned and equitable wireless rules and enforcement. 

We strongly believe that any corporate entities allowed access to our precious public rights of way must act as good neighbors.

Rick Meyer of North Potomac is executive director of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Control of Cell Towers and has lived in the county for almost 40 years.

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