The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday made it easier for wireless Internet companies to install new equipment on utility poles in commercial and mixed-use areas but continued limits on installing new cell structures in residential zones.
The changes come as wireless companies say they need more leeway to expand network capacity via 5G small cell technology, which uses smaller antennas closer together and closer to the ground than on the traditional, much larger cell towers. The debate had raised concerns among some residents about the proliferation of ugly poles and the potential health impacts.
Under the new law, which passed 9 to 0, companies may put new equipment on existing utility poles or replacement poles in commercial and mixed-use areas, such as downtown. The law caps the heights of a replacement pole and requires that it be the same color as the previous one.
In residential areas, the law keeps in place a requirement that new cell structures be at least 300 feet from homes and be approved only after a public hearing. The council also kept a 60-foot setback requirement for equipment on existing structures, including utility poles, in residential zones.
Local officials across the country are responding to the wireless industry’s lobbying of state lawmakers to preempt local zoning laws to make it easier to install new “small cell” technology that expands broadband capacity. Industry-backed legislation died in Maryland after its sponsor pulled it, saying it was too controversial.
Some Montgomery residents had testified that they were concerned about the potential health effects of cellular antennas on poles close to homes. However, the council’s staff noted that federal law forbids localities from rejecting new cell facilities for health reasons, as long as the facility abides by a 1996 federal standard for radio-frequency radiation emissions.