Across the nation, upgrades are coming to the way wireless signal reaches the phone in your pocket. Small cell technology, as it’s called, will lead to the installation of lots of new transmitters. Due to a combination of state and federal regulations, Aspen will not have much control over that process when the cells come to town.
Each of the new small cells is roughly the size of a pizza box, and is installed about 50 feet off the ground, usually attached to an existing lamppost. Aspen’s plans for small cells will see them contained within the cylinders of those lampposts.
Once they are fully rolled out, small cells need to be located within a few hundred feet of each other. That could mean a high density of new transmitters in Aspen’s core.
“If you take a square mile and you take three carriers from the different telecom industry providers,” said Ben Anderson, a planner for the city of Aspen. “every 300 feet is a lot of towers in a square mile. So, potentially, there's one on every block, maybe more than one on every block.”
Anderson is heading up the rollout of small cell in Aspen, but those regulations limit the amount that he and the city can actually control.
A mandate by the Federal Communications Commission says that cities can’t restrict the placement of small cell facilities. In addition, a 2017 Colorado bill says local governments cannot differentiate between commercial and residential districts when it comes to installing the new cells.
“In some ways,” Anderson said, “we feel imposed upon by some of the state and federal regulations.”
Because the city is constrained in its involvement with small cell installation, it has been left in an awkward spot.
Through a series of information sessions and public forums, Aspen has been sharing information with residents and gathering feedback and concerns. Due to federal and state regulations, they can’t always promise a response to those concerns.
Some of the comments shared with the city express worry about potential negative health effects. Many of those comments don’t pertain to the transmitters themselves, but the technology that they’ll bring in a few years. When the first small cells are installed, which could happen as early as summer 2020, they’ll be using the same kind of 4G signal that reaches phones today.
According to the city, in two to five years, they’ll play host to a package of signal upgrades that is referred to as 5G.
And that's what has people worried.
Tom Lankering is a chiropractor in Basalt who has become an advocate for caution and skepticism about the arrival of small cells in the valley and, eventually, 5G.
“You know what the Trojan horse was, right?” Lankering said. “Big gift. Big wonderful thing. Oh, look what they gave us. This great thing, right? What was inside destroyed them.”
Part of Lankering’s concern is rooted in the idea that there is not yet enough research on the potential effects of 5G to confidently install transmitters abound near homes and businesses.
“I don't know, is 5G safe?” Lankering said. “If it's safe, then fine. But I'm going, ‘Hey, wait a minute, let's find out if it's safe before we even start doing it.’”
The other part of Lankering’s concern hinges on claims that 5G signals could alter bodily cells and lead to disease, although some researchers have said that upgraded cell technology would cause no more harm than the frequencies we’re using right now.
Throughout the scientific community, there’s no broad consensus on whether 5G is harmful or not. The one thing a lot of people agree on, though, is that it’s worth doing more research.
Thanks to an FCC rule from the 90s, local governments can’t block the installation of wireless technology on the grounds of environmental or health concerns.
With a raft of regulations that keep Aspen from controlling whether or not small cells come to town, Anderson and the city have tried to take a firm hold of what they can control. That has led them to ask residents what kinds of designs they would like to see for the lampposts that house the cells, and where they’d prefer to have them located.
“It's kind of the power that we've been granted in this whole kind of regulatory environment that we have some control over,” Anderson said.
Anderson has become the public face of Aspen’s small cell discussion, hosting meetings to inform the public and take feedback.
The city plans to hand over location and appearance preferences to cell carriers, along with incentives for them to co-locate their new transmitters, in hopes that it would reduce the amount of small cells that are installed. Additionally, Aspen has issued specific design guidlines to further the extent of its influence on the appearance of small cells in its jurisdiction.
Whether telecommunications companies will cooperate with the Aspen's desires and preferences is yet to be determined.