Wireless 5G technology getting dialed in for Aspen
New infrastructure will begin appearing in coming months with expanded coverage with first applicant, AT&T
After anticipating a flood of applications from small cell providers over a year ago, the city of Aspen is preparing for the first set of potential 5G towers to be installed in town.
As cell phone companies reached out to the city indicating their plans to install 5G technology here and what their rights were according to federal government rules, local planners had to quickly devise design guidelines in an attempt to tamp down potentially negative aesthetic impacts.
But the sense of urgency from cell phone providers has waned, which gave city planners time to work with AT&T on its infrastructure plans in Aspen over the past several months.
AT&T is the only provider that has submitted an application for 5G infrastructure so far, according to Ben Anderson, principal long range planner for the city.
The company plans to install infrastructure at five locations around town, which will mimic what the city’s light poles look like as much as possible.
But instead of 19 feet tall, like the current ones, they will be up to 25 feet tall and will have some equipment visible.
“These are going to be proximate to where people walk and drive and in some cases where they live, so these facilities are going to be visibly prominent,” Anderson said, adding the faux light poles will be painted the same color as the real ones but will have a different format. “We couldn’t replicate the existing historic looking light fixture, if we would have tried it would have looked like a Frankenstein pole.”
State law gives providers the right to locate small-cell facilities on a city’s light poles, traffic signals and in public rights-of-way.
While the city is limited in a number of ways because the FCC in recent years has significantly reduced local control of small-cell wireless infrastructure, Aspen’s stringent land use code protects the community from unfettered wireless infrastructure development.
Under federal law, the poles could be as high as 50 feet but the city’s land use code only allows 25 feet.
The land use code also mandates that equipment has to be underground, so there won’t be cabinets or other related infrastructure attached to the poles.
“That was one of the rules that has been put in place that a lot of communities haven’t done,” Anderson said.
The Aspen locations where these new light poles will be installed in the coming weeks or months are at bus stops on Lone Pine Road in the east end neighborhood and on McSkimming Road in the Mountain Valley area.
Other ones are slated for the southwest corner of First and Main streets; one along the pedestrian and bike pathway on Ute Avenue; and at the Rio Grande recycling center.
The upgrades anticipated in Aspen, including Pitkin County, include network upgrades from older technologies for AT&T to become more efficient with faster technologies, including 5G and LTE capacity augmentations that will enhance speeds for customers, according to a company spokesman.
The enhancements also bring Band 14 spectrum to the area. Band 14 is nationwide, high-quality spectrum set aside by the government specifically for FirstNet.
FirstNet is the only nationwide, high-speed broadband communications platform dedicated to and purpose-built for America’s first responders and the extended public safety community, according to AT&T.
Anderson said he was waiting for a second batch of applications from AT&T for more wireless facilities.
He said the infrastructure that’s planned to be installed is not related directly to 5G technology since those types of facilities need to be located close to one another.
“I don’t think that technology is going to be here for some time so with AT&T they can get the level of service they are looking for with these 10 facilities dispersed across town,” Anderson said. “This first roll out is simply taking our existing types of bandwidths and radio frequencies that we have had in town for a decade or more and improving that service and filling in those holes.”
The city’s guidelines require that carriers must provide public notice to residents in areas where a facility is going to be installed.
Within 15 days of approval of an application, carriers must erect a poster where the technology will be located and provide a notice through the mail to residents who live within 300 feet.
In the coming days, the city will also notify the public through advertisements in the local newspapers and other means, with an emphasis that this is not a new issue or development approval.
“One of the big things in reaching out as we are getting to know that these applications are going to be approved is to remind people that this is not a brand new conversation and it has been a little while due to the process we’ve been going through,” said Denise White, the city’s communications director.
Anderson said the city’s message is that public hearings already have been conducted on design guidelines related to 5G technology.
“We want to make sure that people understand what these things are, how we got here, the kind of relationship our approvals have to the federal and state rules that we are operating within,” he said.
During last year’s public meetings when Aspen City Council approved the wireless technology design guidelines, some members of the public expressed concern about potential health effects of 5G.
The city is limited in establishing regulations on the basis of health concerns and radio frequency emissions. However, AT&T has agreed to producing electromagnetic emissions reports.
The first requirement is attached to the application, which the city has received, according to Anderson.
It explains the equipment, the radio frequencies and their power, along with a compliance letter from an engineer who says they meet FCC requirements.
The second is a testing requirement, either done by the city or a consultant hired by the municipal government, to test the facilities to make sure that the radio frequencies being broadcast are what were advertised.
The city is looking at options to find a neutral host, which would 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 has contracted with a host, Crown Castle, 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.
“Our IT department is working hard to expand fiber connectivity because it reduces the demand for wireless infrastructure,” Anderson said. “Because each one of these poles that’s going to pop up is likely going to be a single carrier pole in the right-of-way.”
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