An outreach push by the city of Aspen is working to explain to the public what the city can and can’t do to regulate the infrastructure needed for 5G wireless.
In 2018, the FCC changed rules that took away the power of local governments to curtail telecommunications. Local governments are now required to allow public right of way to be used for communications towers. The new rules have also set a strict 90-day maximum review period when cell tower applications come in and limited the fees a government can charge for reviewing the applications. Similarly, in 2017 the state of Colorado passed a law that requires cities to allow small cell technology in all development zones.
In effect, the only thing a town like Aspen can regulate when new towers are proposed is the aesthetics of the infrastructure, and offer a set of location preferences.
The city is halfway through a series of in-person information sessions it is hosting this fall. Officials are also gathering public feedback to answer questions during the meetings and through an online survey.
In a mid-day outreach session Monday, planner Ben Anderson presented the recent changes on the federal and state level that are promoting the city to create design guidelines for small cell technology.
“That’s the big fundamental change that the city of Aspen and other communities are responding to, is the use of the public rights of way for these small cell facilities,” Anderson said.
The public right of way includes areas like sidewalks and street lamps.
“A year ago, we would have never allowed the telecommunications industry to have facilities in that right of way,” he said.
The small cell technology is different from the cellular towers that are used for connecting cell phones currently on 4G LTE networks. Any phone making calls or connecting to the internet in Aspen is likely using towers that are based on the roof of the St. Regis hotel. Those towers are in the “macro” class and can reach phones up to three miles away.
Small cell technology which would be required to achieve a fast 5G network don’t have that traveling distance. They need to be closer together, and to ease the burden of negotiating contracts with private building owners across a service area, the new laws have opened up public areas to facilitate the dense system.
Attendees at Monday’s meeting wanted worst-case-scenario estimates of how many small cell towers would be coming to Aspen. Anderson said that wireless companies want the towers every 200-300 feet. That matches the average city block in Aspen, and with four top mobile carriers, could mean a new tower on every corner of each intersection.
However, the design guidelines could be written in such a way that incentivize companies to share towers, or encourage the use of lampposts and street lights that are already built, instead of the proliferation of new developments.
AT&T is the first, and as of yet only, company to submit an application for new small cell transmitters in Aspen, along Main Street near Paepcke Park. The application was not complete so the city sent it back noting the missing information. Once a complete application is received city staff have 90 days to review the request. By that timeline, Aspen would not see its first small cell towers until at least late Spring.
City Information Technology Director Paul Schultz has attended the three community workshops so far. He said the feedback from the members of the public has varied, but the one consistency has been those who come with concerns about the small cell technology’s effect on health.
“I would say the people who have the health concerns seem to be the most engaged,” Schultz said. “But the engagement has been very good and the community has done their homework.”
Anderson emphasized that the city, too, is trying to do its homework around health effects.
“We, much like you, are in a position where we feel like we don't have very much information,” he said. “There's just not good information about this coming technology. There’s really not good information about our current technology.”
He said the city will be taking a look at any research regarding the topic as national reports come out.
“I will tell you that the city of Aspen, we are paying attention to this topic. ...You have our pledge that we are going to be doing that.” Anderson said.
Attendee Buck Field sits on the PItkin County Telecommunications Advisory Board. He said the lack of data showing that the small cell frequencies are safe is disconcerning.
“Why not demonstrate it’s safe. And if it is, you remove doubt,” he said.
Even if the information was available, though, he cited a 1996 FCC law that bars local governments from regulating wireless services based on environmental effects of radio frequencies.
Aspen resident Michael Palmer said for work, faster networks will help tremendously, and he is considering leasing land he owns in Parachute for a small cell tower. But, without steadfast research, he is wary of the health effects.
“Health is a higher priority, and I can’t answer the question until you tell me if it’s healthy or not,” Palmer said.
The outreach team will take information gathered through community meetings and online surveys and present the draft design guidelines to city council. The team is using a series of rankings, in some cases the lesser of two evils approach, to feeling out where the public would be most comfortable allowing new towers, for example city parks versus single family residential, or downtown core versus Main Street.
If public sentiment points toward a fewer-the-better perspective with microtowers, the city may explore incentives would encourage more than one wireless company to share a single tower, or to use city owned locations, such as rooftops or street lamps as opposed to the networks building new poles.
There are two sessions today and one tomorrow at the Red Brick Center for the Arts.