Small Cell Facilities

In April of 2020, The City adopted updated regulations related to wireless facilities within the City. The regulations can be found in two documents:

All applications for wireless facilities are required to complete a Land Use and Permit Application. The required Land Use Application is available here

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Small Cell Infrastructure

The next generation of technology for mobile device coverage and speed use what are known as “small cell facilities,” which supplement larger cell towers.  Small cell facilities are the global trend for wireless infrastructure and they are smaller, more densely placed wireless facilities that can be located on buildings, poles, and other built structures as well as underground.

Examples of technologies that may take advantage of small cell facilities include autonomous vehicles, smart cities, the internet of things, higher speed cellular downloads, and other emerging telecommunication innovations.  

What is small cell technology?

Small cell is an overarching term for wireless network sites with a low radio frequency power output, footprint, and range.  Small cells can transfer data using the low-, mid-, and high-band spectrum, either licensed or unlicensed.   Small cells work in tandem to create a macro network to increase one or any combination of capacity, density, and coverage for wireless services, like 5G.  Because small cells typically service smaller geographic areas, more are needed to complete a network necessitating a dense infrastructure.   Typically, small cells are placed 600 feet apart. Mobile carriers use small cells to extend their service coverage and/or to increase their network capacity. 

small cell graphic

Is small cell infrastructure regulated?

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.

What are the pertinent new FCC rules regarding small cell infrastructure? 

The FCC’s most recent ruling and order regarding small cell infrastructure became effective 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 limits 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.

What control does Aspen have over small cell infrastructure?

The City of Aspen is working diligently to protect the community’s character, aesthetic, 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.

What departments in the City of Aspen are working on small cell infrastructure?

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.

What are the benefits of small cell?

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.

Can the City regulate small cells based on health?

The FCC regulations expressly prohibit local governments from regulating small cells “on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions”.  See 47 USC 332(c)(7)(B)(iv).  Additional resources: 

FCC guidelines for exposure to radio frequency fields.  

FCC Radio frequency safety information

OSHA Radio frequency and Microwave Radiation.

 EPA Radiation Resources  

World Health Organization

American Cancer Association

Boulder City Council Expert Panel and Discussion

Scientific American articles on 5G

CDC information on cell phones and health

The City of Aspen’s land use code requires the wireless carriers to comply with all federal regulations regarding radio frequency emissions. 

Has the City received any applications for small cell installation yet?

No.  The City has received interest from the carriers about small cell installation but no formal applications.

What are the costs to the City of Aspen for implementation of small cell infrastructure?

To date, approximately $150,000 has been budgeted for consultants and infrastructure deployment.