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!

8 thoughts on “My thoughts on BBC Click's mobile mast debate”

  1. Hi Roger,

    The yellow highlights are from a WP plugin which highlights search terms. Obviously with just one or two terms that don't appear often it works ok, but they nudge the whole page design way out when there's a popular keyword (something I only really noticed myself recently).

    Until you mentioned (and I did some quick testing) I never really thought that you could get loads of a page covered with a smattering of yellow! So, I'm either going to modify the plugin for better inline keyword highlighting (with the various colours, as Google does for their cached pages) or just scrap the whole addon altogether. Any opinions?

  2. Hi Chris. Having just found an entry on my log with your web site address I have just read your article. We sem to be making very similar points. I'm glad you managed to fix the problem of too many yellow highlights which prohibited me reading it before. As a radio amateur I am concerned about public fears of radio aerials and R.F. transmissions. Mine of course are very intermittant compared to commercial ones. I used to work as a radio paging service engineer and was made aware of any antispated possible health riscs as a guide to where not to install an aerial. I was only dealing with 5 Watts at about 452 Mhz and lower frequencies. One concern was R.F. power to the eye ball because of the lack of blood flow to carry away heat. Does my web address appear on your log? If not, how can I cause it too? Regards Roger.

  3. Hi, the hard point to get accross to the public is that the fewer mobile phone base stations we have, the higher power they have to operate at to achieve their coverage.
    If we are concerned about transmitter power, we should have LOTS of base stations, so they are literally radiating microwatts of power each, covering several 100's of m radius.
    This would work the other way round as well, handsets would only have to radiate micowatts too. Given the brain proximity, this is more important.

    Of course this is more expensive and just try getting an application through planning for a base station on every 5th lamppost, the public hysteria from people who know nothing about RF would block it.

    I too am a Radio Amateur.

  4. Chris & commenters:

    Thank you for posting a little island of sanity out there in the www! Every time I hear someone complaining about a mast, they *always* include that old chestnut "it's a radiation risk". And 9 times out of 10, a brief laymans' explanation of the inverse square law will result in one or more of the following reactions: blank looks / ridicule / refusal to believe what I'm saying (i.e. I'm wrong) / accusations that I work for the mobile phone company. Sometimes it seems the people with the loudest voices that are paid the most attention are too often the ones with the least knowledge... 🙁

    1. I think the problem with many is they're stuck in the mentality of TV masts -- one humongous eyesore on the hill 20 miles away and that's pretty much it. The day I come up with a system for an inverse harmonic return path with some kind of as-yet-undeveloped transmitter, I'll share the patent spoils with all the commenters 😉

  5. I just came upon your site again after years & also liked the comments. Glad it is still there. I never hear people complaining about this matter any longer though I know some who worry about WiFi in their home, especially if they have children. For a layman to be able to judge the degree of hazard from a few milli watts of WiFi is smilar to asking them to judge the hazzard from one microgramm of radium in their smoke detector. Oh! bet they don't even know it might be in there.

    1. Never mind that, I'm not quite sure how to break the radon news to all the unaware people blissfully living in areas of high granite concentration... 😉

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