Transmission Facilities Coordination Group

ZTA Information

The level of State and federal legislative and regulatory efforts to preempt the authority of local government to manage the placement and size of telecommunications towers in the public rights of way is unprecedented. The best defense we have against these intrusions into local governance is to demonstrate that no further state or federal preemption is necessary because we have already provided a balanced local solution. Preemption will lead to less local input and an inability to protect residents.

On May 15, 2018, the County Council approved ZTA 18-02 to address deployment of 5G small cell antennas in commercial areas. At the request of County Executive Isiah Leggett, on July 27, 2018, the County Council introduced ZTA 18-11 to address deployment of 5G small cell antennas in residential areas, but did not enact this bill. On October 1, 2019, the County Council introduced ZTA 19-07 to address deployment of 5G small cell antennas in residential areas.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Frequently asked questions can be downloaded here. To ask additional questions, send an email to

Small cell is a marketing term not a technical term. Small cell is used by the wireless industry to describe a class of antennas that are designed to be installed at lower heights and designed to operate closer to mobile devices, than so‐called macro cells or macro towers.

A macro tower is typically 75 to 150 feet tall, antennas may be 6 to 9 feet long, and these macro antennas can provide coverage for about a 1-mile radius. In comparison, a small cell tower is designed to be installed 20 to 35 feet above ground, with an antenna 2 to 4 feet long. (Sometimes, multiple antennas about 1 to 1.5 feet long are installed inside a cannister 2 to 4 feet long.) The small cell mobile device coverage area varies from a radius of 250 ft to 500 ft.

As described above, approximately 57 small cells would fit inside the coverage area of a macro cell – but a single small cell provides as much capacity as a single macro cell. More capacity helps bandwidth-intensive applications – such as mobile video and video streaming – work better. Installing small cells at strategic locations will create more capacity in small-radius areas. Mobile service traffic can be moved seamlessly from congested taller macro antennas to shorter small cells. This is why there is more demand to install small cells in densely populated urban areas, near transit stops with large concentrations of mobile phone users, and along large capacity roads with traffic congestion. For converse reasons, small cells are not likely to be deployed to rural or sparsely populated areas – these areas will be served with taller macro towers and there is no financial incentive to install an antenna in a sparsely populated area that will serve an even smaller-radius area.

Small cells require power, and they typically have a pair of fibers for every wireless carrier served by an antenna, installed from a network connection point to the antenna. The small cell uses less power and emits less radio frequency (RF) emissions than more powerful macro cells. Small cells require equipment nearby, that converts the analog RF wireless signal into a digital IP (Internet protocol) signal that travels as light through fiber. Different wireless providers can share a single antenna, but typically they need separate equipment within a single equipment cabinet. This equipment can be installed on a pole, in the pole base, or at ground level near the pole (sometimes disguised as a trashcan, under a bench, or as public art). This equipment generates heat and must be air-cooled or fan-cooled. Equipment on poles can be smaller because it is air cooled, and equipment at ground level needs a fan and to be reinforced to prevent damage.

However, confusingly, “small cells” are used to describe antennas that provide mobile (i.e., cell phone) coverage, and also as “fixed wireless.” Fixed wireless is using a wireless signal to replace a fiber or coaxial connection from the street to a house. Small cells used for mobile coverage serve about a 250 to 500 feet radius, but small cells used for fixed wireless might serve a distance of one-half mile.

“5G” or “5th generation” is a marketing term used by the wireless industry to describe the ability to deliver one gigabit per second service capacity to a mobile device.

5G can mean a process in which the antenna is installed closer to the mobile device (i.e., using a “small cell”) to create more capacity. The spectrum (bandwidth wave frequencies) carry and deliver mobile data to the device. After the data is delivered, the spectrum can be reused. By allowing this repeated delivery of data and reuse of spectrum, more capacity is created.

Confusingly, 5G also refers to specific radio frequency bands, that operate at higher frequencies than current 3G or 4G bands. These higher frequency 5G bands have a shorter physical range, i.e., they do not travel as far. These 5G bands need small cell technology to support deployment in densely populated areas.

Finally, even more confusingly, 5G is also used to describe several new technologies that are still being tested and developed. When industry speaks about 5G technologies, you might hear the terms, “millimeter waves,” “small cells,” “massive MIMO,” “full duplex” or “beamforming.” These are all new technologies being tested to reduce delay and increase download speeds. It’s not clear yet which technologies will work best, and it is why there can be a lot of variation between what different wireless companies state they need to deploy “5G”. It is not clear yet how well these 5G technologies and spectrum will work in buildings, in rain, and where there are a lot of trees.

Additional Small Cell Antenna Information

The County Council’s Small Cell information page can be found here. The County Council provided responses to small cell Frequently Asked Questions in October 2016, which can be found here. Links to other documents and videos are provided below.

FCC Small Cell Recent Actions

The FCC is working to extend its authority to preempt local small cell ordinances. If enacted as proposed, FCC actions would further reduce time limits for the County to review small cell applications, restrict rental rates for use of municipal streetlights to cost, require local communities to subsidize the cost to review small cell applications and permits, and allow streetlights to be increased in size without the consent of the County as the streetlight pole owner. The US Conference of Mayors summarized the FCC actions as follows:

The first action approved in late August 2018 is a final Order prohibiting local governments and states from imposing “moratoria” that might delay companies from accessing local rights-of-way and local property to deploy wireless and wireline facilities. New York City and a collection of other cities, including Los Angeles and Boston, have both petitioned the agency to reconsider this Order.

The second action is a proposed Order that broadly and dramatically preempts local government authority to manage and receive fair compensation for installation of small cells and other related facilities in the right-of-way and on city-owned infrastructure. The FCC will adopt that Order on September 26. This Order is certain to limit what companies pay communities to use public rights-of-way and public property and place controls on what communities can require of companies seeking to use local property for small cell deployments.

In these actions, the FCC, as an unelected and largely unaccountable independent federal regulatory agency, is directly attacking the core authority of local governments (and even state governments). The FCC’s actions are deliberate and systematic, with the clear goal of granting a favored industry preferential access to state and local government property, both threatening and diminishing legitimate and traditional authorities of cities, counties and states to manage and receive fair compensation for their public property on behalf of their taxpayers.

Montgomery County, as part of the Smart Communities coalition, filed comments opposing the FCC’s actions.

National Associations representing local governments, including the National Association of Counties, filed comments requesting a stay of the FCC orders while any appeals or administrative reviews are in progress.

Oregon Cities filed comments opposing limiting fees to cost.

Montgomery County has jointly appealed the FCC Small Cell Orders with hundreds of other local communities. In addition, Montgomery County also independently appealed the FCC Small Cell Orders on grounds that the FCC had a legal duty under federal law to reevaluate its radio frequency (RF) emissions standards before taking further action to implement new small cell rules. These appeals are pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit as Sprint v FCC.

Maryland Small Cell Legislation:

In 2018 and 2019, bills were introduced in the Maryland General Assembly to preempt prevent public input and limit local government authority over deployment of small cell poles and antennas. These bills sought to impose greater state preemptions than those imposed by the FCC. The FCC restrictions are being challenged in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Maryland local governments must comply with the FCC rules unless the 9th Circuit rules in favor of local governments. For this reason, Montgomery County opposes further State legislation that attempts to both circumvent the ongoing appeals of the FCC Orders and to unreasonably eliminate local regulation of small cell deployments.

Montgomery County Small Cell ZTAs, Fact Sheets, and FAQs:

Small Cell Public Meeting Coverage and Presentations

Database, Map and Zoning Ordinance

Radio Frequency (RF) Emissions

Many residents have expressed concern about the health effects of radio frequency (RF) emissions.  Under federal law, the County may not “regulate the placement, construction, and modification of personal wireless service facilities on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions to the extent that such facilities comply with the [FCC’s] regulations concerning such emissions.”  In other words, the County may enforce and require compliance with FCC regulations, but not create additional requirements. That said, the County and other local elected officials have taken steps to lobby the FCC to do more to address residents’ concerns about RF emissions:

Video PHED Committee Approval of ZTA 18-11 (October 2, 2018)

Video Summary of Residents' Concerns About RF Emissions (October 26, 2016 Video Excerpts)