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Montgomery County considers allowing cellular equipment closer to homes

(Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)

As the Montgomery County Council considers allowing cellular equipment closer to homes, more than 150 residents packed a public hearing Tuesday night, with some saying they’re worried about the potential health impacts of wireless radiation and others saying they need better cell service.

Wireless companies say they need more leeway to expand broadband capacity as people use more wireless data, such as to stream videos. Unlike wireless systems based on cell towers up to 250 feet tall, the 5G network will use smaller antennas placed closer together and closer to the ground. Many of them are being installed on utility poles and streetlights.

The council made it easier to install small-cell equipment on utility poles closer to commercial and mixed-use areas in May.

Montgomery County allows 5G equipment closer to commercial, mixed-use areas

But some residents say they’re worried a proposal to allow new cell antennas within 30 feet of their houses, duplexes and townhouses will hurt their property values and won’t adequately protect them from the potential health effects of wireless radiation. Some said they’ve read studies linking such radiation to cancer, depression and other health problems.

“Why would you take away our right to protect ourselves from wireless radiation?” said resident Laura Simon.

Many in the crowd wore white stickers saying “Work with us,” and some held up signs saying “Protect our communities” and “Stop the cell tower invasion.”

Under the proposal from County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), “small cell” antennas and other equipment would be allowed within 30 feet of houses on utility poles, streetlights and parking lot poles taller than 22 feet. If the new equipment met all the requirements, it wouldn’t need a public hearing. The county now requires new cell towers, which are traditionally much larger, to be at least 300 feet from homes and to be approved only after a public hearing. Cell equipment on existing structures, such as utility poles, now have a 60-foot setback in residential zones.

Although wireless companies would have “streamlined access” to place equipment on taller poles, doing so on structures shorter than 22 feet — the kind often in neighborhoods with buried utilities — would have more review, including input from residents, the council staff said. That two-tiered process, the staff wrote, “strikes a reasonable balance between the concerns of residents and our interest in ensuring access to robust wireless broadband services.”

The council also will decide whether equipment boxes at the base of poles could be 20 cubic feet, up from the current maximum of 12 cubic feet.

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Earl Stoddard, Montgomery’s director of emergency management and homeland security, said the county needs the 5G network to operate future 911 systems, which will allow callers to send texts, photos and live-streamed videos to emergency dispatchers. Wireless companies say about 80 percent of 911 calls are made from cellphones.

“They all require robust data [capacity] countywide that doesn’t exist today,” Stoddard told the council.

Some residents said they, too, supported the proposal because they want wireless companies to do more to prevent their cellphones from dropping calls and taking too long to call up websites. Some said they need better service to be able to work from home.

Robert Duncan said the poor cell reception in his Cloverly neighborhood has become a “severe safety issue” because residents aren’t assured their 911 calls will go through from a cellphone.

“We want four bars and 5G,” Duncan said.

Lee Gochman, a Bethesda resident, said he and other millennials want to be able to stream videos, listen to music and use mapping apps without hiccups.

“This is the future,” Gochman said of the 5G network. “We are the future. It’s time for Montgomery County to step up to the plate and employ this technology.”

Montgomery Council President Hans Riemer (D-At Large) said the county needs to make it easier for companies to install the small-cell equipment while also protecting residents as much as possible before industry lobbyists convince federal and state lawmakers to give local governments far less control. Industry-backed legislation died in the Maryland General Assembly earlier this year after its sponsor pulled it, saying it was too controversial, but county officials say they expect a similar proposal will return in the next legislative session.

Wireless firms seek to preempt local authority to install 5G equipment

“Trying to resist doing anything is effectively capitulating to the industry,” Riemer told the crowd. If the county doesn’t update its zoning laws to allow for 5G technology, he said, it “could justify preempting us” with federal and state restrictions on local control.

FCC officials have said they are working to remove what they see as local barriers to installing the 5G network. On Wednesday, FCC commissioners voted to limit how long state and local governments may take to approve cell site applications and how much they may charge companies to process them.

Montgomery officials have noted that federal law prevents localities from rejecting applications for cellular equipment based on health concerns as long as the equipment meets a 1996 federal standard for radio-frequency radiation emissions. County officials said they have asked the Federal Communications Commission to update that standard.

Resident Donna Baron drew applause when she said the council needed to reconsider the proposal because of residents' “very serious questions” about the health impacts.

“Let’s get it right,” Baron said. “Work with us.”