Montgomery Council Moves to Accelerate 5G Rollout

Wireless connectivity remains an important and growing part of the telecommunications infrastructure, and for relatively densely-built areas (mostly downtown areas, but also along major roadways) the advance of fifth-generation (commonly referred to as “5G”) service promises even faster speeds and higher service capacity.

This week, Montgomery County Council adopted a zoning text amendment to streamline the deployment of 5G wireless infrastructure via wireless small cell antennas on utility and light poles. The technology promises to deliver faster speeds, enhanced reliability, and greater capacity.

Small cells are wireless antennas with a smaller footprint and shorter range than macrocells (what you would typically imagine as a large, tall, and free-standing cell tower), making them ideal for short poles and existing structures like streetlights and buildings. Small cells strengthen coverage and data transfer speeds where devices might otherwise compete for bandwidth.

ZTA 19-07 amends the County’s Zoning Ordinance to comply with an FCC order that significantly weakens local governments’ ability to regulate the deployment of small cells and imposes a 90-day “shot clock” to review applications.

The text amendment allows poles with antennas as a limited use in residential zones if the pole for the antenna replaces a pre-existing utility pole, streetlight pole, or site plan-approved parking lot light pole. The replacement pole must be at least 30 feet from the nearest habitable building and comply with screening, design, and height restrictions.

“Most of us don’t think much about how our cell phone works. We just expect it to work and to work well,” said Planning, Housing, and Economic Development (PHED) Committee Chair Hans Riemer. “That’s what this zoning change is all about — modernizing our rules to allow improved 4G and 5G coverage in our County. But it’s also about saying yes to the exciting innovations in wireless technology so that our residents stand to benefit from its game-changing improvements in telehealth, teleworking, transportation, public safety, education, and much more.”

According to a press release:

The Council also approved requirements for preferential placement of wireless infrastructure, language to minimize the loss of trees with all installations and limits on pole proliferation by preventing a small wireless installation within 150 feet of a facility occupied or controlled by the same carrier.

A robust 5G network will provide greater access for underserved populations and contribute to all County residents’ quality of life by providing opportunities for innovation and advancement in multiple sectors, including health care, education, transportation, agriculture and entertainment.

Residents with questions on ZTA 19-07 and cell antennas in Montgomery County can find a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) here. The list includes a breakdown of the ZTA, information on what 5G is, an explanation of federal and local laws on the matter, the FCC’s role, and more.

Council Member Craig Rice, who served as a co-chair of the National Association of Counties Broadband Task Force, said 5G technology is critical for delivering faster network speeds to unserved and underserved communities.

“A key finding of the National Broadband Task Force which I co-chaired was that jurisdictions must leverage all technologies to ensure our residents have robust connectivity,” said Council Member Rice. “Equity will be a priority as we work to ensure the expansion of 5G in areas most in need. We have heard from our residents and this ZTA is one part of the solution to address the critical connectivity needs of our most disconnected.”

Visit the Montgomery County Council website for more information.

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