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September 23, 2012
Value of Telecom Towers

Value of Telecom Towers


Mahesh Uppal

The American evangelist Billy Graham reportedly said once that hot heads and cold hearts never solved anything. The actors in the debate whether telecom towers are good or evil could heed those words.

There are allegations that radiation from telecom towers is harmful and that mobile operators are like cigarette manufacturers profiting from products that cause disease and death.  A high court recently ruled that towers should be moved from crowded places and narrow roads. The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has recently ordered that levels of radiation from towers be lowered to a tenth of their present values. These norms formed a part of an earlier Inter-ministerial Committee (IMC) Report which also recommended a ban on towers near schools, hospitals etc. DoT order is silent on the latter.

Mobile operators have agreed to comply with the DoT rules even as they insist their towers conform to safety standards and guidelines of international regulatory bodies including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). The IMC report had also accepted that the data on health effects of mobile radiation is inconclusive.

Will the new norms prevent accidents and serious disease or, add unnecessary costs for providers of services that few of us can do without?

It seems unfair to compare mobile operators with cigarette manufacturers who consistently refuse to accept that their products were harmful. Arguably, even chain smokers might concede that wireless connectivity offers greater all-round value than cigarettes do!  Towers are perhaps more usefully compared with roads or railways. They are valuable infrastructure even if there are good reasons to regulate them to prevent mishaps or unintended consequences.

Towers are a legitimate regulatory issue. They pose concerns about safety, aesthetics, emissions, spectrum use etc. Virtually every country regulates towers including their location, numbers, shape, size and visibility. However, countries have different norms for towers. There is no easily discernible pattern. In Australia and South Africa the permissible levels are low, in US, Russia and Canada they are rather high.

Reducing dependence on towers is however, not simple.  India depends almost exclusively on wireless technologies like cellphones for connectivity. It lacks adequate fixed line (copper wire) or optical fibre network to fall back on. This means that to obtain adequate connectivity with fewer towers, we would need to radiate more power and thus exacerbate the very harm that towers allegedly cause.

Professor Girish Kumar of IIT Mumbai, a campaigner against radiation from mobile towers, proposes increasing the number and height of towers to reduce the power of signals and the consequent harm.  This sounds reasonable but there are growing complaints that towers are marring skylines.

According to the IMC report, the wireless operators’ sharing of towers, which DoT promoted aggressively, also raises radiation levels. However, stopping such infrastructure sharing will inevitably raise costs, lower efficiencies in a key infrastructure sector in need of substantial investments for expanding broadband, for instance.

Similarly, prescribing lower emission levels for schools and hospitals seems absurd.  It ignores that children and the sick spend a very tiny part of their time there.

Towers therefore present complex and interrelated issues. We cannot afford to oversimplify costs or the benefits.

The current use of wireless technology is historically unprecedented. The possible impact on health deserves careful study.  However, it is naïve to ignore that that the radiation in question is not a new phenomenon. It belongs to the well-known electromagnetic spectrum that includes radiation ranging from very weak (e.g. infra-red) to extremely powerful gamma rays.  Mobile radiations are weak and termed “non-ionizing” due to their inability to break ordinary chemical bonds.  Similarly, the heating caused by prolonged cell phone use is comparable to that from exposure to sunlight.

Arbitrary and ill-considered decisions are no substitute for inaction. Indiscriminate closure of tower sites or unrealistic levels of permitted radiation are no more likely to work than restricting car speeds 10 km per hour in the name of road safety. The many unintended but serious consequences for people’s lives at home, work and elsewhere, deserve attention.

The government has a unique role to play in creating a regulatory environment that incentivises responsible behaviour in the tower business. This includes ensuring that a key infrastructure sector like telecom remains attractive to serious players, whether Indian or foreign. Such players, arguably, have more incentives to observe rules for towers or handsets than fly-by-night players, with stretched budgets and rampant greed.  An unregulated grey market is especially risky when it involves “invisible” radiation that few can monitor.

India has roughly 4 lakh towers and more will be required for expanding broadband and rural coverage. Deploying towers is a daunting task involving disparate rules, endless approvals and expensive delays. Compliance and enforcement are familiar challenges in India. Streamlining government processes in the states as well as centre is critical.   It would ensure safe towers of appropriate heights conforming to prescribed standards and levels of emissions can come up at suitable locations. This, more than empty rhetoric and posturing about towers might better reconcile the many competing concerns about telecom towers.

The author is a telecom consultant.  mahesh.uppal@gmail.com


(Published in Financial Express 20th September 2012

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