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Will Fear of Radiation Hinder 3G Industry Development?
Will Fear of Radiation Hinder 3G Industry Development?

We're on the eve of the 3G rollout. But as network operators and equipment vendors get ready for this billions-of-dollars industry, the public's fear of radiation - real or imagined - is growing. Will this fear put a crimp in wireless plans?

Mobile phones produce radio frequency (RF) radiation. That's a known fact. But scientists disagree about the extent to which such radiation may be damaging to the phone user's health. This is why American and European government organizations have tried to come up with a uniform set of rules, such as the European ES 59005 document. In general, though, these documents fail to go beyond the aspect of tissue heating generated by RF radiation. Other possible impacts on our bodies, which function mainly through electromagnetic processes such as heartbeat and brain activity, are neglected and it'll take years of careful research before any kind of well-founded conclusion can be drawn. But rather than starting an endless discussion here about whether the RF radiation produced by mobile phones is a health risk, I'd like to focus on public awareness of the possible health risks. What can be done without much scientific hassle is to inform the public of the exact amount of radiation produced by each particular mobile phone and let people decide for themselves whether they want to buy one, and if so which one. Probably prompted by the risk of possible future claims, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) in the U.S. recently issued a decree that orders manufacturers of mobile phones to indicate on the package how much radiation is produced by the phone. European manufacturers have volunteered publicly to declare this Specific Absorption Rate (SAR), which determines the amount of energy produced per unit of body weight. So the amount of RF radiation will likely become another part of the marketing mix in the future, just as size, color, and other features are at this moment.

But it's not only cellular phones that produce RF radiation. Within a mobile phone network the antenna that's hosted by the Base Transceiver Station (BTS) transmits with far greater power than the one watt or so produced by the mobile phones you can buy in the shops nowadays. This is why in most countries the same rules for radar systems, such as you find on ships, apply to mobile network antennas. But what about those antennas on apartment buildings, the ones just over the heads of people who live on the top floor? Fortunately for them, the antennas have a primarily horizontal radiation pattern in which little radiation is produced above or beneath the antenna. Nevertheless, those who live near these sites are expressing their concern over the possible effect of RF radiation on their health, and municipal and other local governments are hesitant to issue permits for building the antenna sites in highly populated areas. This is becoming more and more of a problem for network operators since highly populated areas are just the areas where antennas are needed to replenish the already congested networks. Therefore the discussion of placing antennas on apartment buildings goes beyond the aesthetic question that's already been answered by disguising antennas as trees or building antennas in neon signs.

At the same time, most European governments are cashing in on billions of euros by auctioning or just selling the frequencies at which the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) operates. UMTS is the European umbrella name of new broadband wireless communication technologies that will enable data-transfer speeds ranging from 64Kb in a moving car up to 2Mb when a user is stationary in-house. These third-generation (3G) networks can pretty much leverage existing sites with additional antennas, but depending on the antenna density of the second-generation network, additional sites will definitely be needed in highly populated areas, and also taking into account that usage will rise in the years after introduction.

With the public's preexisting distrust of mobile network antennas, it's questionable whether the process of building 3G antenna sites will be as easy as it was to build the mobile networks currently in use. Which is somewhat paradoxical since radio interface technologies, such as W-CDMA and CDMA-2000, incorporated in the 3G mobile phones, will transmit a lower amount of RF radiation than the mobile phones of first- and second-generation networks. But a public opinion that reads "Antennas are bad news" will perhaps not distinguish between various technologies. How would the network operator market the 3G phones? As being "less damaging" to a consumer's health? This sounds like a cigarette that's marketed with a thicker filter.

As always, money will probably ease the pain of homeowners, but it also means that network operators have to dig deep into their pockets to compensate. The average costs of putting up an average BTS are already about U.S. $130,000 without this compensation. A side effect could be that competing network operators will cluster together when it comes to using each other's antenna sites, but in the highly competitive wireless communication markets this kind of cooperative behavior won't be commonplace unless it's enforced by law. The costs for compensation add to the billions of euros or dollars already paid for using the air as a transport medium. On top of that, the tedious process of finding suitable sites with less demanding homeowners nearby will probably slow down a speedy network rollout. This won't be a problem in the early stages of 3G, when there are only a few users and network capacity will be enough to give the early adopters and innovators a reasonable data throughput. But it may become a problem when the growth in popularity of 3G exceeds the growth in the number of antenna sites and users won't reach the data throughput levels that were promised, or will get no connection to the network at all. A saturated network is an operator's worst nightmare since it'll not only affect current-user satisfaction but will also have an effect on the buying habits of potential customers. And these potential customers are definitely needed to earn back the interest on and redemption of the UMTS billions. On a larger scale, it could damage the image of a whole industry since it's not only the network operators that will be affected by a large-scale rejection of 3G by the public, it will also affect all the companies that have invested in building portals and services, hoping to catch their share of the 3G goldrush.

In my opinion there's no solution to this problem. Should the network operators ask for concessions from the national governments to place antennas wherever they're needed? National governments will probably leave the problem to local government, afraid of possible claims if they force an antenna rollout program on the public. These local governments will in their turn demand compensation, knowing that the network operators were willing to pay national government billions just for a license to use the frequencies for a period of several years. The problem of public apathy about RF radiation produced by antennas, combined with the fact that network operators paid billions for UMTS frequencies that may be difficult to exploit, gives another meaning to the term hot air.

About Paul C. Eijkemans
Paul C. Eijkemans, m-commerce editor of WBT, works for a worldwide
consulting company in the wireless and mobile commerce business.
Before that he managed his own e-commerce company and did various
Internet projects in areas such as e-food,
ticket reservation systems, and entertainment.
In Japan he did research on mobile commerce
initiatives, including 3G developments and i-mode.
In Southeast Asia he conducted research on the
broadband network Singapore ONE and the use of
IT in the port of Singapore; in South America he
did research on the position of Chile's IT and
communications sector. He holds a master's degree
in information management/economics from the
University of Rotterdam.

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