UPPER MARLBORO — At their meeting on June 4, the Prince George’s County Council received a briefing on small cell towers and what fifth-generation cellular networks (5G) could mean for the future of Prince George’s County.
The briefing gave an overview of small cell technology from the perspective of the government and outlined policy considerations for the council.
Traditional cell facilities are allocated to tall towers or mounted on roofs. Their signals travel over a distance of several miles, and their coverage varies based on range and the number of people trying to use the internet at the same time.
Small cell towers, however, are facilities with a low radio frequency of power, output and range and used to complement traditional cells.
They are typically installed on existing structures such as poles, streetlights and buildings. Overall, they are used to increase coverage to the area and increase capacity that traditional cell towers would not be able to support.
Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Government Operations Tara Jackson, who led the presentation, said the outlook on small cell technology is cautiously optimistic regarding the process and implementation of it.
“Implementation of small cell infrastructure was definitely not our idea, some would say that it was thrust upon us and we have no choice in it, but we believe if handled correctly, if we get out in front of it, if we do what we can, if we hold the industry to the proper standards, then it will benefit the residents of our county,” she said.
The industry wants to eventually use small cell towers to densify fourth-generation cellular networks (4G) and prepare for 5G in the future, Jackson said. However, the full use of 5G technology is still years away and will be rolled out on an incremental basis.
According to Manager of Strategic Operations Brad Frome, we currently have overused 4G which will eventually be transferred to 5G. However, 5G is an entirely different technology and at this time is very limited as our phones cannot yet support it.
When 5G does begin to overtake the 4G world, the internet speeds will be 100 times faster than the current data speeds and will bring about new potential for how we work and play, Jackson said. It allows transmission of data back and forth much more rapidly, such as that needed for autonomous vehicles.
“So the goal is that those devices can connect and interact with other devices over the internet,” she said. “They are preparing for smart cities, smart communities.”
Despite 5G technology being far off, federal laws have already been put into place that makes thinking about 5G and coming up with policies surrounding it as an urgent matter for the county council.
According to the current laws, Jackson said, local governments may not prohibit small cell towers and have a limited authority to control the placement and appearance of them. There has also been a time limit of only a couple of months placed on the amount of time a county has to process a company’s application for a small cell towers, which includes time for appeals.
Currently, the county law is oriented to traditional cell towers including small cell towers would involve modifications to the Zoning Ordinance.
County Councilmember Deni Taveras wondered how far away county legislation on small cell towers would be, not only throughout the county but nationwide, as it is possible to fall behind other countries.
“We need to push 5G as much as possible and try to get ahead of the curve,” she said. “I know nationally we may be falling behind, but the cost of it is if we don’t push ahead and if we don’t take an aggressive stance on instituting 5G, China will.”
Councilmember Derrick Leon Davis was more concerned about the health impacts of 5G.
According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cell phones use radiofrequency (RF) radiation to send signals. It is unknown whether RF emissions cause health problems years later, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies it as a possible human carcinogen.
“It seems always to be the stumbling block, especially locally, where we don’t do our due diligence with regard to understanding what everyone else is talking about as far as health impediments or health issues, so we become victim to the information absence,” Davis said.
“In essence, it’s probably better to over inform than under inform and make sure our community knows that the federal government preempts this.”
The rest of the council was mainly concerned about their limited authority in determining where the small cell towers can be placed.
There were questions about limitations on placing them around schools and equity in where they are placed as companies might want to put them in areas with a greater population density, leaving rural areas with less coverage.
“There must be some criteria that we are able to establish to say where these things should be best located,” said Councilmember Mel Franklin.
The county council will need to start taking public input on the new technology, develop design standards, review applications and amend the Zoning Ordinance as they begin preparing for the introduction of small cell towers, but a timeline has not yet been announced.