Australian telco Telstra this week announced plans to roll out the first 1,000 sites of 500,000 wifi hotspots across Australia. Having last year paid $1.3 billion to secure two 20 MHz spectrum blocks in the 700MHz band and two 40 MHz blocks in the 2.5GHz band, Telstra plans to spend just $100 million to establish what will effectively be an alternative network to 3G and 4G spectrum.
On the surface the plan makes commercial sense, enabling Telstra to push consumers to use wifi for downloads, allowing 3G and 4G spectrum to be used for high value customers.
But has Telstra thought through the consequences of establishing its wifi hotspot network? And perhaps more importantly, where is the response from Government and regulators?
There are very real concerns as to the long term health impacts of mobile and wireless radiation. On 31 May 2011 the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B), based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer associated with wireless phone use.
The concern from medical practitioners about the health impacts of radiation from mobiles and wifi led to the establishment in 2007 of the BioInitiative Working Group. In a similar way the work of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which reviews the emerging science on climate change, the BioInitiative Working Group produces a regular BioInitiative Report, with the latest 2012 report reviewing around 1800 new studies reporting bioeffects and adverse health effects of electromagnetic fields and wireless technologies.
The BioInitiative Report, which is prepared by 29 authors from ten countries – ten holding medical degrees (MDs) and 21 PhDs, considers the emerging research on the effect of radiation on immune function, stress responses, brain tumours, acoustic neuromas, childhood cancers, alzeimer’s disease, breast cancer, fertility and reproduction effects, fetal and neonatal effects and autism.
The rapidly changing research environment has led the BioInitiative Working Group to update its work on a regular basis. On 16 April 2014 it stated “evidence for health risk from wireless tech is growing stronger and warrants immediate action. New studies intensify medical concerns about malignant brain tumors from cell phone use.”
For such an emerging public health issue there is remarkably little attention paid by governments on the public health impacts of mobile and wireless radiation. There are number of potential reasons for this including the undoubted complexity of the subject.
The strong commercial interests that corporations have means that it is unlikely that we will see independent commercial research funding examining the risks of mobile and wireless radiation. This wasn’t always the case. Up until 2006 when Telstra closed its Telstra Research Laboratories making several hundred staff redundant, Telstra was a strong supporter of telecommunications research, a legacy of its government ownership.
Devra Davis, founder of the Envionment Health Trust and author of The Secret History of the War on Cancer is proposing that to address the gap in independent research that one dollar from the sale of every phone would be used to train physicians, biomedical researchers and engineers and provide independent research funding, and support monitoring and evaluation of the potential impacts of cell phones and other wireless transmitting devices on health.
Davis is also arguing for a review of the regulations around mobile and wireless radiation, noting that in the U.S that “the last national survey on exposures to electromagnetic fields in America took place in 1980. Standards for cell phones were set 18 years ago. Would you fly in an airplane that met old safety standards?” The criticism of the current regulatory standards is that they are measuring the wrong thing, focusing on measuring heating or thermal effects, and not biological effects.
There is no doubt that it is uncertain what the impact of a 500,000 wifi hot spot network on public health would be. However the emerging research on health impacts means that we shouldn’t just go forward blindly.
Before Telstra is allowed to proceed with its wifi hotspot plan it is imperative that a public inquiry is conducted.
This should not be conducted by existing regulatory bodies but by the Federal Parliament.
The benefit of a parliamentary inquiry is that the evidence of the inquiry, both verbal and written, is available for all Australians to read. It would also ensure that instead of outsourcing to regulators that politicians become engaged in considering the risk to public health from mobile and wireless radiation.
Such an inquiry should take the opportunity to examine whether Australia’s regulatory standards for mobile and wireless radiation are appropriate for the modern era.
Should Telstra proceed with its wifi hotspot plan it is likely to encounter resistance that will take many forms, including legal challenges under nuisance laws. Whilst we make our own decision whether we turn on a wifi router in our own homes, having industrial strength wifi beamed into our houses when we are not Telstra customers, will mean that Telstra will become the focus of stakeholder campaigns and potentially class actions.
The telco industry has been here before with the roll out of mobile phone towers. The difference between then and now is that technology itself has evolved. Wifi routers that are produced today are far more powerful than ones just a few years ago. We also know far more about the potential health impacts of mobile and wireless radiation.
Telstra may be able to roll out their wifi hot spot network in the short term. But the ‘cheap’ cost of the rollout needs to be considered against whether the network is actually in the public interest. Acknowledging that there are risks with mobile and wireless radiation does not mean that we stop using this technology. It means that we use it in a smart way that ensures our health is protected. For long term investors, the impact of mobile and wireless radiation will need to become a core part of engagement with telco companies.
Devra Davis in the Huffington Post
The Secret History of the War on Cancer