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Small cell facilities are low-powered antennas that provide cellular and data coverage to smaller geographic areas, supplementing the larger cellular network and improving service for wireless customers. They are installed and operated by private companies.
Small cell equipment will initially meet current 4G (LTE) voice and data demands, but city staff understands it may be modified with future 5G higher-speed equipment as technology changes.
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No. Small cell facilities are allowed in the public right of way per federal and state laws, just like other utilities. The City of Aspen has developed a permitting system to ensure that small cell facilities are placed in a way that minimizes their impacts within the areas that the city is allowed to regulate.
Research shows that mobile data traffic in North America has grown significantly, and is projected to continue increasing at a rapid rate with the proliferation of mobile devices. Wireless companies have indicated that existing infrastructure is becoming congested and cannot continue to meet the demands of their customers.
Wireless carrier companies have indicated that until recently, wireless phone service in general has been managed using large antennas mounted on towers located on both public and private property. Those antennas serve relatively large areas, or “cells” that may include several miles. According to wireless carriers, existing cell sites are already becoming congested, and installing more cell towers covering large areas will not keep up with projected demand for high speed wireless data. To meet demands for wireless data, carriers have begun using new lower-powered antenna technology to “offload” data traffic from the larger cell towers. Each of these smaller antennas serves a much smaller area (1-2 blocks) but with much higher data volumes. This type of wireless infrastructure is referred to as “small cell.”
The city has developed regulations to provide for architectural compatibility of small cell facilities, including using the same colors for poles as others in the area, camouflaging equipment where possible, and prohibiting ground-mounted cabinets.
Generally, existing poles do not have the structural capacity to handle the weight of the small cell equipment. The size of existing poles also does not allow for the camouflaging of the equipment within the pole so additional cabinets would be strapped to the pole. The City’s current regulations provide incentives for the industry to replace existing poles with new ones that can meet both the small cell and other needs.
While the City of Aspen is not a public health agency, City staff track information provided by other agencies and organizations, such as the Federal Communications Commission and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. These resources may be helpful to people who wish to understand more about public health in relation to radio frequency (RF) radiation.
The industry's intent for deploying small cell facilities is to improve their reliability and coverage. Each site is usually connected to a specific provider.
Small Cell infrastructure is regulated under both state and federal law. Colorado state law was amended in 2017 by House Bill 1193 to create a use-by-right for small cell facilities in any zone district and shortens the time frame within which the City must act on an application for a small cell facility to 60 or 90 days. It also gives providers the right to locate or collocate small cell facilities on a City’s lights poles, traffic signals, and similar infrastructure in the City’s rights-of-way.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has numerous regulations that local governments must follow, leaving very little room for municipalities like Aspen to regulate the wireless carriers on where they install the technology, how dense the small towers are, and how long Aspen has to respond to an application for installation. Federal Communications Commission rules allow for very dense deployment of the technology in municipal rights-of-way anywhere in the United States.
In 2018, the FCC removed regulatory barriers that would have allowed local governments more control over the deployment of necessary small cell infrastructure. The ruling is entitled: Accelerating Wireless Broadband Deployment by Removing Barriers to Infrastructure Investment. The ruling is currently facing legal challenges by several local governments.
The FCC’s most recent ruling and order regarding small cell infrastructure became effective on January 14, 2019. Among other things, the ruling imposes new “shot clocks” for the processing of small cell applications. For new standalone facilities, a city has 90 days to process the application. For facilities located on city infrastructure, a city has 60 days. The ruling and order limit the permit fees municipalities can charge providers. The new FCC ruling also clarifies that municipalities are prohibited from adopting regulations that “materially inhibit” a particular small wireless facility deployment. Finally, the ruling establishes that aesthetic standards adopted by local governments applicable to small cells must be objective and reasonable, no more burdensome than those applied to other types of infrastructure deployments, and published in advance. A link to the full declaratory ruling, report, and order can be found here.
The City of Aspen is working diligently to protect the community’s character, aesthetics, and values to every extent possible within the federal guidelines.
Aspen does have some control over the design and location of the small cell infrastructure. For instance, what the poles look like or how far apart they can be. Aspen recently amended its Land Use Code to respond to changing state and federal regulations regarding small cell infrastructure. This code amendment also adopted design guidelines that are applicable to small cell facilities. Aspen is currently in the process of creating more detailed and comprehensive design guidelines with consultant HRGreen with the goal of protecting Aspen’s character and unique identity while delivering small cell technology according to state and federal law to residents, guests, visitors, businesses, and emergency services.
Aspen is proactively developing standards that address aesthetics and spacing requirements for small cell installation in the public right-of-way while also complying with state and federal law. By law, small cell facilities are allowed in the public right-of-way just like other utilities.
The Community Development, Utilities, Engineering, Attorney, Environmental Health, Information Technology, City Manager, and Communications Departments are all aligned and working as a team to respond to the FCC guidelines while protecting the community’s character. The integration of small cell technology requires the implementation and reliance on land use codes, right-of-way permits, utility lines, historic preservation, fiber network, cybersecurity, electric service, streetlight infrastructure, legal agreements, and communication and outreach.
Small cells provide coverage and capacity, meaning how far the mobile signal reaches and how much connectivity you have on your mobile device. Small cells may provide faster downloads as smart phones and other wireless devices have a connection to the network that can handle massive amounts of data at higher speeds. In a place like Aspen where mountains can get in the way of phone service, the mobile networks may be more reliable. Small cells are a particular benefit for emergency services, which can integrate new technologies like Next Generation 911 and early warning systems for natural disasters as well as have more reliable and faster service around Aspen.
The FCC regulations expressly prohibit local governments from regulating small cells “on the basis of the environmental effects of radiofrequency emissions”. See 47 USC 332(c)(7)(B)(iv). Additional resources:
The City of Aspen’s Land Use Code requires the wireless carriers to comply with all federal regulations regarding radiofrequency emissions.
Yes, the City has received interest from carriers about small cell installation.