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July 26th, 2009:

My thoughts on BBC Click's mobile mast debate

Having read the Click article about the French being up in arms over mobile phone masts being placed in inappropriate places (for example, in the middle of a cluster of schools), I felt compelled to respond to the article. (Particularly after the FUD inspired by last year's Panorama programme which conflated WiFi with GSM radiation!)

First of all, I do agree that a school is an horrendous choice of location for any high power base station - developing brains with their young neural tissue are certainly more vulnerable to being damaged by omnidirectional radiation than adults, and mobile phone masts aren't a great choice. That said, WiFi access points (with their much lower output range) are a far lower power - I consider those quite safe for school environments and other areas where there are kids.

I sent my full comment into the Beeb, but I'm sure it'll either be edited or probably not used at all because they're after the quick two line responses. So, I decided to post it in full on here. The questions the BBC asked were these: "Would you care if there was a phone mast or a wi-fi hotspot near your home? Or are you not worried? If you are bothered by this, would you be prepared to give up wireless communications altogether?"

My response:

Mobile phone masts are a necessary evil. We desire ubiquitous connectivity but develop a bad case of NIMBYism when we see a large phone mast.

What many don't realise is that we're already blanketed by mobile masts and their radio waves; large masts are disguised as flagpoles on the top of churches and other buildings or made to look like an unused lamppost, picocells are bracketed to shop walls on every high street... They literally are everywhere!

Never mind UMTS and GPRS cells, you also have a much thicker blanket of (lower power) wifi - BT hides hotspots inside phone boxes, The Cloud and other providers put access points all over public spaces and buildings in our major cities. There's even wifi hotspots on trains! And then there's the other types of signals - FM radio, UHF analogue and digital television, and, weaker still Z-band satellite TV from space.

There's a LOT of fear, uncertainty and doubt about the power output of phone masts. A post on the IET Forums describes the actual typical power output of a 3G mast as "around 20W (43dBm)." The Health Protection Agency indicates that the power output of a mobile phone during a call can start at 2W and step down to around 2mW based on signal strength and quality, but you're holding it right next to your brain. A phone mast 100 metres away at 20 Watts, or a mobile phone with its omnidirectional radiation outputting at up to 2 Watts - which you push against your skull and keep in your pocket the rest of the time... which do you think is more dangerous in the long run?

As a reference, the Sutton Coldfield transmitter pumps out FM at 250 kiloWatts ERP (the mast uses two transmitters, each rated between 20-40 kiloWatts, one for each half of the aerial). We've all been blanketed by this stuff for decades!

I work in an office with a T-Mobile UMTS (3G) mast about 30 metres away. The mast's about 50/60 feet high and we're on the ground floor - my phone therefore only has to use a very low power signal and as a result its battery lasts longer and it pushes out less radiation.

Is mobile technology (and the ensuing mast networks) as safe as not having it at all? No, of course not. But would we be able to go back to a life before mobiles? I'd wager a large amount of money that people would revolt if the phone signal was made worse by taking away some of the most important masts. They have to go somewhere!