Boulder City Council on Tuesday grappled with what regulations, if any, it could implement in response to 5G cell phone technology.

Council scheduled a lengthy study session with a panel to learn more about the technology at the urging of community members, in particular those who are concerned about it, despite assurances from staff that they know of no plans for 5G to be rolled out in Boulder in the next year.

Beyond that, Boulder is limited in what it can do.

Federal regulations preempt local governments from regulating the placement of facilities on the basis of environmental effects, as long as radio frequency emissions comply with FCC regulations. Colorado regulations further preempt city actions, especially as they relate to small cell facilities in city rights-of-way.

Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer

James Duncan listens Tuesday during a Boulder City Council study session on 5G.

As council discussed possible policy considerations, Councilman Aaron Brockett suggested council ask staff to help it  stay on top of the changing landscape, but he noted the city did a good job in adopting small cell regulations in 2017.

“We’re doing a lot,” Brockett said. “I feel like our regulatory regime here is pretty good.”

Councilwoman Lisa Morzel was among those on council who said they wanted to get the city’s lawyers and Public Works staff involved in looking through the city’s regulations and coming back with suggestions to improve them. Councilman Sam Weaver suggested the city start with Grant Wilson, the directing attorney of Earth Law Center.

Wilson was one of seven people who served on the panel Tuesday and he prepared a report with policy recommendations for council, in which he noted he received a “small payment” from  Boulder residents who are concerned about 5G to complete the report.

“I would love to do that,” Wilson said in response to Weaver.

Morzel said she would like to see an ordinance that combines the city’s efforts with Wilson’s recommendations.

“I’d like to see those all put together and what is realistic for an ordinance for the city of Boulder,” she said.

Councilwoman Cindy Carlilse recommended a working group, similar to one the city formed to examine best approaches to making charter amendments related to election laws.

Some on council also turned to the city’s legislative agenda, including urging Boulder’s congressional delegation to push the FCC to ensure its docket on the matter is updated and finished.

“That would be an easy lift for us,” Mayor Suzanne Jones said.

Morzel said she would like the legislative agenda to include more research into health and safety matters.

Kevin Gifford, scholar-in-residence in the University of Colorado Boulder’s Technology, Cybersecurity and Policy program, said low-band and mid-band 5G would be in the same frequency spectrum as 4G and LTE are now. The health effects would be the same as those of Wi-Fi and LTE that have been seen the past 30 years, he said. High-band is where the industry wants to move to get more bandwidth, he said.

Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz, said the evolution of the mobile phone has introduced challenges in understanding possible health implications. As researchers studied cigarettes, for example, they remained largely unchanged throughout the 20th century, he said.

“There is still a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “I hate to be the researcher who says more research is needed. … We do need more.”

Devra Davis, founder and president of the Environmental Health Trust, said there is no question the world needs 5G but advocated for ways to make it safer.

“The question is how to make 5G more safe,” she said. “There, I think, we have a very strong rationale for making 5G as China is generally doing: wired to and through facilities.”

Councilman Bob Yates said that although existing studies have focused on the phone and its proximity to the body, council should focus on what it could reasonably regulate: towers and small facilities and where they are placed.

Gifford, though, said there is exponentially less radiation from a cell tower.

“There’s a lot more radiation from your phone than from the cell tower,” he said.

In concluding the session, Jones said council took a “big step forward” Tuesday.

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