Council Committee Wants More Information Before Deciding on New Cell Tower Rules

No time constraint as panel weighs options


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Council President Nancy M. Floreen discusses small cell tower antennas at a hearing Monday.

Montgomery County Government website

A Montgomery County Council committee is looking for more information before deciding whether to approve a proposal that would allow the construction of cell phone antennas in the public right of way.

“We don’t have a schedule. We’re going to have to deal with this,” Council President Nancy M. Floreen, who is also chairwoman of the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee, said during Monday’s hearing on the proposal. “We’ll work this through this fall. … We’re not under a particular time constraint.”

Representatives from Crown Castle, a Houston-based company that builds “small cell solutions,” wants to construct the antennas so cell providers, such as Verizon or Sprint, can have contiguous coverage and not create “islands” where cell signals fade in and out.

In July, company representatives testified the small antennas were safe.

Generally, large antennas mounted on towers 100 feet tall or more provide most cell phone service. But as demand increases for wireless service on cellphones, tablets and other mobile devices, the major companies are looking to improve network coverage using the smaller antennas.

Federal Communications Commission rulings allow companies to add cellular equipment on utility poles by right, Floreen said. But as the county has encouraged underground power lines, some neighborhoods have no utility poles. The poles for streetlights aren’t strong enough for the antennas so in some cases, companies like Crown Castle would have to build their own poles, triggering county oversight.

Council member George L. Leventhal, a committee member, said he agreed the need for cellular communications was expanding. But he wondered whether companies such as Crown Castle could satisfy their needs only with utility poles.

The Crown Castle representatives said they would have to go back to the cell companies to find out how well the antennas would serve the cell carriers if only placed on utility poles.

Council members asked staff for more information, including what nearby counties have done.

Leventhal said any proposal needs to provide more safeguards “from having objects in line of sight that are aesthetically undesirable.”

Floreen said the council has heard from a number of people, and many of them have health-related concerns from the emissions from the antennas. She said FCC rules forbid the council from considering health claims.

The county’s Tower Committee reviews all tower requests and forwards recommendations to the Department of Permitting Services. The county expects 700 more applications besides the ones from Crown Castle, Floreen said.

“It’s mind-blowing,” she said. “It will determine how we adjust to the new world of everything being Internet-based and Wi Fi-based.”

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