By Pradeep S Mehta
In 1974, a blockbuster movie was released highlighting the basic necessities of man, Roti Kapda aur Makaan. If the same movie was to be remade today, the title would have added another necessity as “roti, kapda, mobile aur makaan”. Needless to say, mobile phones have become a standard companion for people. Mobile phones, in a lot many ways, have made life easier. Now it is easier to contact people whenever and wherever you want, you can message friends, stay live on social networks, do shopping, call in cabs and click selfies and share them and what not. Not only that but the government has launched the JAM trinity to empower the poor in the country, where J stands for Jan Dhan (financial inclusion), A stands for Aadhaar (identity) and M for mobile telephony.
Looking at the current debate on call drops, one needs to understand that it is the lack of sufficient mobile towers which are one of the major reasons for the poor service.
Mobile services work on radio waves provided by radio antennas mounted on towers. Despite the utility, there is an active impediment against the installation of mobile towers (technically known as base stations) as it is perceived that the radio waves they emit impact human health. While there is no conclusive evidence of this as yet, the perception is fast becoming a hurdle in expansion of mobile services. We, the mobile users, globally, are part of a “mobile legion”, and we need to save this precious service from disappearing because of mere “perceptions”.
It has long been debated if radio waves, emitted by mobile phones and mobile towers, affect the people’s health. It has been claimed that like radioactive radiations, radio waves too have carcinogenic effects. Even though there are no studies which substantiate these claims, anger and protests against installation of mobile towers are widespread.
In 2013, the World Health Organisation stated “Studies to date provide no indication that environmental exposure to radio frequency (RF) fields, such as from base stations, increases the risk of cancer or any other disease”. Similarly, governmental organisations of various countries like India (department of telecommunications panel, 2014), America (Federal Communications Commission), etc. conducted studies to assess adverse effects of radio waves on human health and gave it a clean chit. Unlike ionising radiations like gamma rays, X-rays, etc., radio waves (non-ionising radiations) do not have enough energy to impact the human body. Ionising is the process in which atoms gain or lose electrons, causing change in the atom’s behaviour, which in case of living cells may cause mutations, cancer and neuro, reproductive or cardiac problems.
Radio waves have been used by microwaves and television sets since long and have shown no traits of being hazardous. Had radio waves been dangerous, more than half of the world’s population would have been suffering from some or the other deformity.
Mobile phones need radio waves to communicate and radio waves are provided by antennas which enable their transmitting and receiving. Since one antenna caters to a number of users, they are placed at heights such as building rooftops, water tanks, towers, etc. The higher the mount, the more would be the coverage, but would require more power usage and powerful waves. With a large population still devoid of telecom connectivity, India desperately needs to further its network coverage. The present barriers to installation of mobile towers because of existing perceptions on radio waves, could make “Digital India” a distant dream to achieve.
The operators, due to public perceptions of radio waves, are trying to find alternative technologies to mobile towers, to provide cellular connectivity. Some alternatives being used are: a) distributed antenna systems (DAS); b) microcells; c) picocells and; d) femtocells. Of these, DAS is the newest and increasingly becoming more popular. Though DAS and other alternatives trail behind on coverage radius (one-two mile as compared to six-eight miles for mobile towers), they have advantages on offer such as: 1) since the antennas are located away from the schools it would allay the concerns on health risks for school children; 2) power output for each antenna is lower; 3) installation of DAS towers doesn’t impact natural ambience like conventional towers; 5) antennas are barely noticeable as they blend with utility poles.
Though, alternatives to mobile tower exist, their costs and efficiency poses questions on feasibility.
DoT has set regulations for the maximum exposure limit for radio frequency field (base station) as 0.45 Watt/sq. m (for 900MHz). The norms in India may be compared to countries having most stringent norms like China, Switzerland and Russia (all 0.1 W/sq. m). America has set the same at 10 W/sq. m which is way higher than Indian norms. So, India has definitely taken precautionary measures to even address the “perception”. Despite the stringent regulations, some are demanding a further scaling down of exposure level norms.
Union minister for communications and information technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad has also declared the radio waves to be safe, but the flip side of the debate has kept the argument running. It is evident that to keep mobile services running, we would need mobile signals which would need installation of new base stations. The regulations existent in India, keep radio signals totally safe from any negative impact on our health. Thus, there is a need for the government as well as the operators to launch awareness drives to inform people on the radio waves being safe. It might take time, but would empower people to make an informed decision and not based on widespread non-evidence backed perceptions. We have to understand the need to coexist with mobile towers to keep enjoying the freedom of walking and talking. However this being said, we should also keep assessing safety of radio waves. Safe as today, the world definitely needs mobile service and we should let it flourish. We are all mobilegionnaires and it’s our collective responsibility to keep it alive.
The writer is secretary general of CUTS International. Rohit Singh of CUTS contributed to this article.