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Press Releases - County Council

Council Committee returns to zoning change for 5G wireless

For Immediate Release: Tuesday, January 19, 2021

With COVID-19 demonstrating the importance of wireless networks, Councilmembers supporting wireless infrastructure will make a final push.
PHED worksession on ZTA 19-07 is scheduled for Feb. 10 at 1:30 p.m.


ROCKVILLE, Md., Jan. 19, 2021—On Feb. 10, the Planning, Housing, and Economic Development (PHED) Committee will again consider ZTA 19-07, a zoning amendment that facilitates the deployment of next-generation wireless infrastructure. The new wireless antennas on utility poles and light poles will offer faster speeds, enhanced reliability and much greater capacity. Councilmember Hans Riemer, Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz and Councilmember Craig Rice sponsored the measure.

PHED Committee Chair Hans Riemer said, “Wireless is a critical issue for our economic future. COVID-19 has shown how much we need strong networks. Students are working at home over wireless networks. Employees are working remotely over wireless networks. Doctors are consulting with patients over wireless networks. We must update our zoning laws so that companies can continue building stronger wireless networks. Falling behind on wireless is unnecessary, untenable and frankly unconscionable.”

“The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently estimated that more than 60 percent of all health care institutions and 40 to 50 percent of all hospitals currently use some form of telehealth. During the pandemic, telehealth claims have increased more than 8,000 percent,” said Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz. “This will only grow in the future. It is vital that our hospitals and medical professionals have high functioning wireless network to serve patients.”

Education and Culture Committee Chair Craig Rice said, “This is an opportunity to use lessons learned from the pandemic as a positive force to reveal and implement resources that serve the critical needs of our residents. As co-chair of a national task force on the digital divide, I am reminded daily of policies that have limited our potential to fully exploit wireless capabilities. ZTA 19-07 is one step toward mitigating the effect of federal policies which have hampered our ability to adequately serve the communities we know so well. While this won’t address the inequitable access to broadband speeds for everyone, it is the start to ensuring our residents have the capacity they need to access the internet in their daily lives. The pandemic has simply revealed how critical the need is for fast, reliable connectivity for our students, businesses and medical professionals.”

Martin Rosendale, CEO of the Maryland Tech Council, added, “Rapid and equitable deployment of 5G technology is critical to maintaining a competitive business environment, expanding broadband services to be more inclusive, and supporting the technology infrastructure. ZTA 19-07 is a necessary step forward.”

Background on ZTA 19-07

When we make a call or download an email, our phones are connected to networks through antennas on top of distant buildings or radio towers. The next generation of wireless network technology will reach speeds and capacity normally only found with broadband cable or fiber access. This high-speed wireless technology is called 5G. To build 5G capacity in communities, networks require antennas close to the ground or at street level, such as on utility poles and light poles. At this time, Montgomery County’s zoning code does not allow wireless antennas on poles in residential areas. With most of the County off-limits, companies are not building networks here.

Accordingly, ZTA 19-07 includes the following provisions:

  • Allows wireless facilities on poles in the public right-of-way by right when those antennas are appropriately set back from the nearest building and by conditional use when they are closer, plus numerous other screening, color and size/height conditions. Conditional use requires a hearing.
  • Does not allow antennas on new poles that are closer than 30 feet to the nearest building.
  • Revises the conditional use process to comply with federal law and court decisions by
    • affixing deadlines to all steps in the process to meet federal shot clocks.
    • requiring that the hearing examiner’s inquiry must determine the least visually obstructive location when ensuring provision of service.
    • allowing the batching of applications.
    • directing that appeals of the hearing examiner’s decisions go straight to the Circuit Court.

The impact of this proposal is that the industry is incentivized to use poles that are setback further from residential buildings. When the setback distance is less than prescribed, a hearing is required so that impacted residents will be informed and will have the opportunity to advocate for another location that may be less obtrusive.

The sponsors, Riemer, Albornoz and Rice, introduced ZTA 19-07 in October of 2019, followed by a PHED workession in January 2020. PHED Chair Riemer, at the request of his PHED colleagues, postponed further worksessions to allow for litigation in the 9th Circuit Court to be resolved. The County joined a coalition of local governments across the country to challenge an FCC order that curtailed local governments’ authority to site wireless infrastructure. The 9th Circuit largely ruled in favor of the FCC, diminishing the role of local governments in siting wireless infrastructure.

5 Reasons for 5G Now
COVID-19 Shows How Wireless Networks Are
More Important Than Ever

As we grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, Montgomery County residents are relying on communications networks now more than ever. Fiber optic and wireless networks work together to create connectivity. While the County has strong fiber optic networks, we cannot afford to slide to the wrong side of a digital divide in wireless networks. The County has long benefited from advance deployment of networks, both wireless and fiber optic. These deployments have happened because the private sector has invested in the County based on a legal framework that supports deployment. Today that framework is obsolete for the next generation of wireless, as the County no longer has a legal strategy for continued deployment of advanced wireless networks. They are prohibited in most of the County by the zoning code. While small wireless antennas are allowed in some urban areas, to attract the investment we need from private companies they must be allowed broadly in the County.

Montgomery County’s existing posture on small wireless infrastructure is untenable, unsustainable and undesirable. The time has come for the Council to embrace the future and legalize the future of wireless network technology throughout Montgomery County.

Distance Learning Relies on Wireless Networks

  • Montgomery County Public Schools' (MCPS) transition to distance learning because of the pandemic has shown us just how critical high-speed internet connectivity is to our kids’ education.
  • While many students and teachers are able to use their personal wired and wireless connections for the distance learning curriculum, not every family has access to a wired broadband connection. Some families are using their mobile devices as their internet provider for distance learning, either exclusively or episodically.
  • MCPS also filled the gaps by providing MiFi “hotspot” devices that run on wireless carrier networks. Even with these hotspots uneven coverage for our students continue to exist. As of November 2020, there are:
    • 10,265 MiFi devices for students
    • 1,573 MiFi devices for staff
  • As data needs for curriculum and video communications increase--such as Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) applications--5G wireless networks are critical to delivering educational outcomes.

Telework Relies on Wireless Networks

  • Because of the pandemic, many residents are now working from home relying solely on their in-home broadband connections (wireless and wired) to get their jobs done.
  • 70 percent of employers are adapting to the increased use of remote work, so much so that they expect to downsize their office space permanently, according to the recent CEO Outlook survey by the international consulting firm of KPMG.
  • 5G provides complementary high-speed connectivity for these at-home workstations, allowing employees to be more productive.

Telemedicine Relies on Wireless Networks

  • The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of telemedicine, which will increasingly need higher and higher capacity wireless networks.
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that more than 60 percent of all health care institutions and 40 to 50 percent of all hospitals currently use some form of telehealth.
  • During the pandemic, telehealth claims have increased 8,336 percent.
  • The super-fast connectivity of 5G is unleashing advances in telemedicine through remote health sensors, real-time high-quality video, remote surgery, the quick transmission of massive imaging files, and much more.

Public Safety Relies on Wireless Networks

  • First responders currently rely largely on voice-only communication technology.
  • 5G will make possible advanced real-time situational awareness for first responders through high-quality video, sensors, and autonomous agents.
  • These advances will make our first responders able to work faster, smarter, and more safely.
  • 5G will also support Next Generation 911, which will not only improve location accuracy, but also allow callers to send video and other multimedia data to dispatchers.

5G Brings Broadband Speeds to More People

  • The pandemic has highlighted the divide between those who have access to the latest communications technology and those that do not.
  • For instance, the recent OLO Report on Telehealth equity noted, “the most significant barrier to telehealth is access to technology, often due to low socioeconomic status and the limitation of infrastructure. Stable internet connection and technological devices are essential and not available to everyone. Some specific impacts include: (1) digital literacy and acceptance of technology amongst older adults, black and brown patients, and non-English speaking patients; (2) individuals with disabilities may have issues with telehealth; and (3) individuals in rural areas in which access to broadband internet is limited.
  • The ubiquitous deployment of 5G will put high-speed broadband access in the hands of everyone with a cell phone.
Release ID: 21-017
Media Contact: Tommy Heyboer, 240-777-7948 , Joy Nurmi 240-777-7959
Categories: Craig Rice, Gabe Albornoz, Hans Riemer