Aspen moves forward on providing 5G technology

A patron of Whole Foods Market in Willits uses her phone. Getting a signal in the midvalley area can be a challenge for Verizon customers.
Anna Stonehouse / The Aspen Times file

With as many as a dozen small cell providers looking to set up 5G networks by next spring and many more expected in the future, Aspen City Council on Monday agreed that finding a neutral host will minimize impacts to the city’s aesthetics.

A neutral host is a company that builds, operates and maintains facilities that they lease to wireless service providers and carriers, much like cell towers do currently.

The city is in the process of contracting with a host in an effort to minimize the number and size of small cells by incentivizing wireless carriers to operate using shared facilities versus each carrier having their own.

City officials said hopefully it is more economical for carriers to sync up on the same site, but if not some incentives could allow the infrastructure to be placed on existing public buildings or public lands.

“It’s conceivable that we build it and they won’t come,” said Paul Schultz, director of information technology for the city.

He added that similar infrastructure has occurred in Vail.

“This is something that has been done before,” Schultz said.

Small cell supports 5G — or fifth generation — technology, which promises to be faster and will support more wireless connections, among other benefits.

The city is in the process of hiring an outside firm to create design guidelines to minimize and standardize impacts to public rights of ways and overall aesthetics in town.

A state law passed in 2017 gives providers the right to locate small-cell facilities on a city’s lights poles, traffic signals and in public rights-of-way.

“We want them camouflaged,” said City Engineer Trish Aragon.

Also, a recent ruling issued by the FCC significantly reduces local control of small cell wireless infrastructure, including any regulations on the basis of health concerns and radio frequency emissions.

“The circumstances to deny is no longer there,” Aragon said. “We don’t have the power to stop them.”

Council members said they have heard concerns from members of the public on potential health threats resulting in wave frequencies emitting from small cell sites.

“People are genuinely concerned,” Councilwoman Ann Mullins said.

There is data on both sides of the argument of whether small cell infrastructure causes cancer and other detrimental health effects, and people can do their own research, council members concluded.

Aragon said the limits of what the government can do with small cell regulation will be part of a major community engagement campaign headed up by an outside public relations firm that has expertise on the matter.

“We want the public to understand that we are limited in what we can do,” Aragon said, adding that Aspenites have made it clear they want as much information from their city government as possible. “The community’s appetite for community engagement is insatiable.”

Local governments can, however, regulate based on aesthetics, location and installation type.

And because of state and federal regulations, the city has as little as 30 days to review and approve applications.

So far, three requests to update existing wireless facilities have been formally processed through the city’s land-use code. They are located on the roofs of the St. Regis Hotel, Aspen Highlands and Aspen Meadows.

Recently, a wireless carrier has approached city staff and indicated an interest in adding two new poles located in the Main Street right-of-way corridor and eight additional poles throughout the city.