Telecom towers affect our health? Busting this myth
As the Indian telecom sector prepares for the next generation of mobile telephony, some legacy issues continue to haunt the sector, making the demanding job of connecting the country even more difficult. The biggest challenge is busting the myth and clearing misconceptions around telecom towers being hazardous to health.
The problem is not restricted to rural areas where one can blame lack of awareness, but even in high-end urban areas, the myth continues to pervade, making it difficult for telecom service providers to erect necessary infrastructure to provide communication services. This also severely restricts access to critical sites in residential areas, near schools and hospitals, where population is most dense and coverage remains essential as networks getting congested can bring down the quality of service. The misconception over EMF emissions has resulted in thousands of towers being dismantled or new ones prevented from being constructed.
Right of way, or RoW, is not a luxury when it comes to the sector. It is defined as the permission needed for creating the infrastructure necessary for provisioning communications services such as telecom towers and OFC (optic fibre cable). The present government under the leadership of the minister of communication Manoj Sinha has made rapid strides by issues a central RoW policy which is a Gazette notification. This ideally needs to be mirrored across the country and in every state.
Multiple global agencies and organisations like the World Health Organisation (WHO), safety and standards authorities, and even cabinet ministers and government institutions, have publicly stated there is nothing to fear from radiation emanating from telecom towers, yet the myth continues. WHO analysed as many as 25,000 articles published over the last 30 years before declaring that there are no consequences to health from the low level EMF (electromagnetic field) created by telecom towers and handsets. Despite the fact that there is no proof of any health hazard from the telecom masts and equipment, the government has still set very stringent standards, as an assurance to citizens and taken abundant caution.
In 2008, the Indian government accepted the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) norms to limit levels of EMF radiation from mobile towers. Moreover, based on the recommendations of an Inter-Ministerial Committee, in 2012 the government decided to adopt norms 10 times more stringent than many of the developed nations of the world. This means the EMF emissions from telecom towers in India are limited to one-tenth of the world standards.
To ensure compliance, the Telecom Enforcement Resource and Monitoring (TERM) field units of the Department of Telecommunications (DOT) carry out extensive audits of self-certificates submitted by telecom companies and Base Transceiver Station (BTS) sites. In case a BTS site is found in violation, a penalty of Rs10 lakh per BTS per occurrence is imposed. Should the violation be repeated, shutting down of BTS site becomes obligatory.
Access to sites remain critical for the growth of the nation. This understanding also needs to percolate down to the many municipal corporations and state government departments, who see this as a way to monetise access to government land and buildings. The sector is already reeling from hyper competition as it makes is journey from voice to data. The consumers have been the biggest beneficiaries of the tariff wars in the sector but like any industry going through churning and flux the sector can do well from constructive and timely government interventions which will, in turn, benefit the country. At present the sector is struggling to manage a cumulative debt of almost Rs4.6 lakh crore. An additional investment to the tune of Rs2 lakh crore is required immediately in the sector to ensure innovation, competitiveness and continued infrastructure roll out across the length and breadth of the country.
New technologies like 5G (fifth generation), IoT (internet of things) and M2M (machine to machine) are around the corner and will require continuous and seamless network support. Given that infrastructure is a key element to connectivity and its consequent benefits to the economy, the government is working closely with the industry to resolve most issues.
While telecommunications is a central subject, support from states is essential for telecom and infrastructure developers in receiving permission to use public or private properties. Over the past couple of months, the Odisha and Rajasthan government have adopted new RoW policies for installing telecom infrastructure in their respective states. The new policies essentially streamline the process of granting permission to telecom infrastructure providers and thereby goes a long way in helping the telecom industry erect critical infrastructure needed for telecom and high-speed Internet networks. Prior to these rules, infrastructure providers procured permission from diverse authorities or organisations, paid varying fees and followed many complex, arbitrary procedures. By streamlining the process, the new rules make it easier and faster to establish telecom infrastructure.
Telecom towers are globally being used for more than just providing telecom services, including disaster management. The towers are not important for connectivity they are an essential necessity. Telecom services become the first line of defence in any natural disaster or emergency scenario. Every corner therefore needs to be connected and access to sites remains critical, even for women safety.
India’s telcos use the least amount of spectrum per subscriber, to service the second largest mobile phone market in the world. The lesser the spectrum, the more the towers needed. Similarly, more people using the limited spectrum in a certain area leads to the requirement for more towers. This situation persists at a time when the government is almost completely dependent on the telecom sector for execution of its ambitious Digital India programme. Without coverage and connectivity to the next generation of technologies, it would become nearly impossible to deploy M2M and IoT connected devices.
With robust mobile services, many ambitious government programmes such as Digital India, Smart Cities, Jan Dhan Yojana, and Skill India, will flourish and the benefits of these mission-mode programs will multiply. It is time, well-informed sections of society help in countering the myths about mobile tower radiation that are impeding India’s progress and prosperity.
Farhat Basir Khan is the seniormost faculty member of AJK Mass Communication Research Centre and is on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Scientific Temper of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), GOI.