ROCKVILLE — As the County Council weighed yet another bill to facilitate the deployment of small-cell antennas, the Federal Communications Commission took a step that could render the months of debate moot. On Wednesday, the FCC decided to remove some regulatory authority from local communities over the deployment of small-cell antennas. The small-cell antennas, which […]
ROCKVILLE — As the County Council weighed yet another bill to facilitate the deployment of small-cell antennas, the Federal Communications Commission took a step that could render the months of debate moot.
On Wednesday, the FCC decided to remove some regulatory authority from local communities over the deployment of small-cell antennas. The small-cell antennas, which telecommunications companies said are needed to implement 4G and 5G broadband service, has become a contentious issues for localities nationwide.
While some residents in Montgomery County opposed the deployment of the small-cell antennas, which would be placed on telephone poles, representatives from the telecommunications industry said they are needed to meet a growing demand for service.
On Tuesday night, the County Council held a public hearing for Zoning Text Amendment 18-02, which would change the County’s zoning laws to facilitate the deployment of small-cell antennas.
While the County Council debated the issue for more than a year with residents, most of the members of the County Council, as well as County Executive Ike Leggett, claim that the County needs to pass its own regulations, facilitating the deployment of the small-cell antennas; otherwise, the FCC will preempt local control.
On Wednesday, the FCC did just that, issuing a declaratory ruling restricting the fees and the time frame a local jurisdiction like Montgomery County can delay a deployment of a small-cell tower.
On Tuesday County Council President Hans Riemer (D-at large) and County Executive Ike Leggett issued a joint statement, anticipating the non-favorable ruling from the FCC.
“We want Montgomery County to have the most-advanced wireless networks, However, the orders that the FCC is poised to vote on tomorrow are an assault on local governments’ property rights and cut our residents out of the process,” Riemer and Leggett wrote in a joint letter to the FCC.
Before the hearing, Riemer mentioned that the Council will have little control over the deployment and cautioned those who were about to testify that the Council could not weigh into one of the main issues for opposition — the potential negative health effects from the radiation the small-cell antennas emit.
Riemer, who is a lead sponsor of the ZTA, also mentioned that there are service gaps in the County that could cause a potential issue for 911 calls, as real-time video chatting technology becomes a part of an emergency operator’s playbook for dealing with emergency calls.
“We have pretty good coverage in this County for the most part, but not everywhere. And there are certainly neighborhoods just beyond the reach of the macro-tower,” Riemer said.
While most testified against the ZTA, Tuesday night, some residents voiced their support for small-cell towers.
Matthew Herrmann, a resident of Potomac, said he wanted to testify in favor of the bill, saying that he thinks there needs to be an expedited process for the deployment of small-cell antennas.
“Right now I get two bars in my house, I can barely sit in my house and do a conference call,” Hermann said. “If I’m doing the conference call, I better not be the leader on it because half the time it’s dropped. And I live in Potomac, in a very densely populated area.”
Tuesday night, the third floor hearing room at the County Council Office Building was packed with residents who were against the ZTA. Some brought signs; some cheered others who testified against the bill.
Those against the ZTA presented numerous complaints, saying the small-cell antennas lower the property values of homes, the ZTA would eliminate public input, and the small-cell antennas emit harmful radiation.
Some residents said they are skeptical that the County can properly regulate small-cell antennas when it has yet to take action on illegally-placed utility poles.
Council member Marc Elrich (D-at large) echoed those sentiments Tuesday night at the hearing.
“I’m not comfortable with going forward with this part, if we can’t get the regulatory environment right,” Elrich said.
Elrich noted that Riemer’s warning that the FCC will take action is likely moot, given that local jurisdictions across America are debating the issue, and the FCC’s decision is not likely to hinge on what the Montgomery County Council decides.
Tim Willard, who is a Green Party candidate for Montgomery County Council at-large, said one of his main concerns is the negative effects of the small-cell antennas. Montgomery County Green Party Chair Nancy Wallace said politicians and regulators have ignored overwhelming scientific data that show the radiation emitted from small-cell antennas is carcinogenic.
Willard admitted that it is unlikely residents will be able to prevent the small-cell antennas, but said the Council can improve the ZTA, perhaps by increasing the distance the antennas have to be from homes, from 30 feet to 60 feet.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult to stop any cell towers coming in,” Willard said. “But we can do a much-better ZTA that protects people’s health by having bigger setbacks.”