City councilors began discussions Wednesday evening about paving the way for the next generation of wireless technology in Keene.
City staff presented a first draft of an ordinance to the council’s planning, licenses and development committee, but it was pushed to a December meeting so more staff could attend.
The ordinance would create location standards and design guidelines for installing small wireless facilities on public rights-of-way. Also called small cells, these facilities are the implementation tool for 5G, the fifth generation of mobile networks that’s touted as offering faster download and upload speeds and better connectivity between devices, such as Bluetooth and cars.
Planning Technician Mari Brunner explained that this newer telecommunications technology is, as its name suggests, relatively small.
“These can be placed on light poles, flag poles, the sides of buildings: They’re much more versatile than the cell towers we were seeing before this,” she said.
As drafted, the ordinance would mandate that antennae be no larger than 3 cubic feet (the size of a mini fridge) in residential areas and 6 cubic feet elsewhere, and all other wireless equipment on a structure couldn’t cumulatively take up more space than 28 cubic feet. There are height requirements, too, capping new structures built for small cells at 35 feet, for the most part, with an absolute cutoff at 50 feet.
For comparison, cell towers are typically between 100 and 200 feet tall.
“The overall intent or the purpose here is to really provide for the opportunity for these to be placed in our community,” Brunner said. “One of the needs in our community is broadband access, and this is the new generation of technology that will enable 5G [and] things like that.”
The draft ordinance also aims to ensure that small cell installations don’t present a safety hazard in terms of placement, she added, that they align with the city’s character and don’t conflict with other goals.
Brunner noted that local government authority is limited due to the Federal Communications Commission’s so-called Small Cell Order, issued September 2018. More than 100 pages, the order outlines what the FCC interprets as regulations that “effectively prohibit” wireless service and restricts what municipalities can require of providers.
Pointing out the ubiquity of utility poles on Emerald Street, Councilor Kate M. Bosley said she wants to know more about the city’s authority to limit them or dictate spacing requirements.
Brunner said she could prepare that information, along with answers to other questions from councilors, for the next meeting.
“... I think that’s a really good argument for publishing these types of standards in advance,” she added, “because that way it gives you the control to set those guidelines ahead of time, and as long as they’re clear and published in advance, then you can ask the carriers to follow those rules.”
Councilor Terry M. Clark, who isn’t a committee member, expressed concerns about potential health risks of implementing 5G. He argued that the technology’s high-frequency electromagnetic fields with short wavelengths could be harmful, causing effects such as “a burning sensation” on the skin and infertility in bees and other animals.
“I’m not trying to say that the sky is falling or anything like that,” Clark said, “but this is a brand new technology that we’re using for cellphones and that we’re putting up to our ears.”
Because the waves from small cells don’t travel as far as current cell towers, a network would require more to be installed in greater density, which Clark said is alarming. While acknowledging the benefits of high-speed Internet access, he urged his colleagues to research the potential health risks before their next meeting.
High-frequency fields can cause vibration of charged or polar molecules in the body, resulting in friction and heat, according to the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, which has developed exposure guidelines used by governments around the world. The body can accommodate a small increase in heat, the commission’s website says, similar to what happens when playing a sport.
Nodding to the considerable research that’s been done on the relationship between high-frequency fields and health outcomes, the commission writes that “this research to date has not shown any such health effects.”
Bobby Williams, a councilor-elect for Ward 2, offered a few thoughts on the draft ordinance, including a second to Clark’s public health concerns.
Later in the meeting, City Attorney Thomas P. Mullins cautioned the committee not to stray too far into the health questions of radio frequencies — the city has to be careful to stick to what’s allowed under the FCC order, he said, adding that city staff doesn’t have medical expertise.
Williams also pointed to the “big aluminum boxes,” ground-based equipment that will accompany the small cells. The draft ordinance would mandate that, whenever possible, these devices be installed underground, which he said is an innovative solution. But that won’t work in flood zones, he said, where the equipment will likely end up above ground.
“And it concerns me that since those are in flood zones, those are gonna be in some of the poorer areas … so I’m concerned that that’s going to contribute to, I guess neighborhood blight would be the word,” he said.
In running for his seat on the council, Williams said one of his priorities was examining the effects of habitual flooding on low-income neighborhoods and what the city could do to improve those areas.
After more brainstorming, Mullins said everyone brought good suggestions to the table.
“We really do want to take a look at this. … But I’m going to encourage you to move it along, because we need to have something,” he said.
There has been interest in using the small cells for faster Internet, and there needs to be a structure in place, Mullins said. The FCC order includes deadlines for municipalities to process applications for small cells: 60 days for a colocation and 90 days for new construction.
The planning, licenses and development committee is slated to continue the discussion at its meeting Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. at City Hall, where members of the public will be invited to provide input.