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Why does New Cingular want to install “small cells” in Carlisle? Do “small cells” pose any health risks or nuisances for residents?

“Small cell” technology is a hot topic at the moment in the wireless industry and even in politics — but first, a bit of context for this week’s question.

New Cingular Wireless, an AT&T affiliate, is seeking zoning variances to install two small cell wireless devices in residential areas, according to a public notice published in The Sentinel: one at 47 Kerrs Ave., and one at 630 N. East St. There will be a Carlisle Zoning Hearing Board hearing Wednesday evening to consider New Cingular’s request.

It is the first time a wireless company has requested a zoning variance for a small cell from the Carlisle Zoning Hearing Board, planning/zoning/codes manager Michael Skelly said.

Small cells are small in comparison to traditional wireless towers, although they can still range in size from a pizza box to a refrigerator. They have a smaller range than towers, but their high-band frequencies allow for quicker data speeds. That makes them ideal for urban areas that lack bandwidth for the amount of users crowded in a small space.

AT&T Director of Public Affairs Dan Langan said in an email that small cells are “vital” to adding capacity to AT&T’s LTE network, “which enables higher connection speeds and an overall better customer experience.” They also lay a foundation for future technologies such as 5G and “smart cities,” he said.

Other large wireless providers, such as Verizon, are also investing heavily in small cells.

Critics of small cells lodge two primary objections. First, they say it is unknown whether they could pose a cancer risk.

The American Cancer Society says there is “very little” evidence that cell signals increase the likelihood of developing cancer, adding that the energy level, wavelength and total amount of radio frequency waves to which people are exposed make any such risk unlikely. Still, the Cancer Society says that “(v)ery few human studies have focused specifically on cellular phone towers and cancer risk,” a fact that worries some people living in neighborhoods where small cells are being installed.

Second, critics say small cells can be unsightly despite their comparatively small size. Based on information provided by New Cingular/AT&T, Skelly said the small cells they propose in Carlisle will be “fairly innocuous.”

“They do not stick out like a sore thumb,” he said.

A controversial Federal Communications Commission decision last fall placed limits on local regulation of small cells, and a state bill under consideration in Harrisburg would further ease roadblocks to small cell development.

For now, though, New Cingular needs approval from the Carlisle Zoning Hearing Board to install the small cells. They will make their case during a hearing at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the municipal building at 53 W. South St.

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“The timeline for installation will depend upon approval from local officials and our collaboration with the local utility that owns the poles,” Langan said. “We expect to move as quickly as possible to install (the small cells) once we receive approval to do so.”

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Daniel Walmer covers public safety for The Sentinel. You can reach him by email at dwalmer@cumberlink.com or by phone at 717-218-0021.