By NICOLE BURROWS
We’ve been using mobile phones in The Bahamas for almost 15 years, at least since the time I returned from college and was on my second job in 2000-01.
However, there is no statute law in The Bahamas that speaks plainly and clearly to public health and safety in the construction of mobile communications towers.
The Communications Act of 2009 defers to (the establishment of) the Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority (URCA), giving that agency the power to oversee all mobile communications in The Bahamas.
The “general powers of URCA” outlined in the Communications Act of 2009, Section 8. (1) (g) indicate that “URCA shall have the power to issue any regulatory and other measures and in part shall – issue technical rules and standards”, that is, in part along with other parts/responsibilities listed in (1).
But URCA falls way short of this mandate.
The construction of mobile/wireless communications towers by both BTC and Cable Bahamas has been prolific, especially in recent years. And it has occurred with very little scrutiny of and public disclosure about the health and safety of mobile communications technology.
The news agencies have carried many stories on the procedure, delay, competition and hope of cellular liberalisation, even with the government naming a Cellular Liberalisation Task Force, but there is nary a story on the health and safety concerns of radio frequency (RF) antennas and their electromagnetic fields which are together a powerful and crucial element of mobile communications networks. Not only are too many of them not aesthetically pleasing, but they can also be physically harmful.
But, per usual in The Bahamas, important developmental concerns don’t get seriously or fully considered until after the fact, not until people start experiencing adverse effects of the concerns in question.
The health hazards of radiation exposure by RF emissions are not unknown. Of course, the mobile communications industry is an extremely lucrative one and is so prevalent that almost the whole world is reliant on some form of wireless communications technology in multiple spheres. So, the time taken to investigate the real impact of RF emissions on humans is probably going to be terminally delayed, but forthcoming nonetheless.
In 2013, five girls in a Denmark high school conducted a simple experiment of growing plants in a room with a WiFi router, emitting the radiation equivalent of one cell phone, observing that the plants had not grown or had in fact died in that environment. In a room without a WiFi router, the test plants had grown and flourished. Their science experiment is now being more closely studied in a specialised neuroscience institute in Sweden.
Obviously, exposure to electromagnetic fields is not entirely avoidable, but it is believed to be fairly well-managed, by all accounts thus far, as long as adequate, enforceable standards/regulations are observed and the appropriate protocol for handling RF equipment is followed.
In The Bahamas, though, we have few such standards.
What URCA has identified as technical regulations for the industry have only come about as recently as this year (September), and only as a result of fighting over competition and infrastructure sharing, such that that is the focus of the barely five pages of published technical guidelines for the construction of mobile communications towers.
And, of course, to match this bare minimum, there is no real, functional consumer protection agency that works as a last resort in the enforcement of such protective guidelines.
We’ve recognised time and again that The Bahamas is not a proactive country, it’s not a pre-evaluative country, it does not put a premium on education and it is not known for its academic or scientific research. But, in order to have a decent, first-hand understanding of the mobile communications industry and its associated scientific ramifications, to be able to create respectable standards and form a regulatory framework within which mobile licensees are to operate, study is needed.
In trying to answer some of my own questions about exposure to RF radiation, I began my search looking for legislation that speaks to this matter under the authority of the Ministry of Works. That is when I discovered that this enormous environmental and health concern is little URCA’s responsibility.
Mobile communications towers have been erected left and right at warp speed around Nassau, some literally in people’s backyards, near schools and playgrounds and churches (both companies, BTC and Cable Bahamas, are culpable). Now whether that’s because Bahamians generally care more about being able to text or call their lovers for pennies than they do about their long-term health, I don’t know. But here we have two very large, ridiculously profitable (over the years) companies that have continued to build RF mobile antennas/communications towers without disclosing to the public the potential harms of exposure to radiation emitted by RF equipment. What they care more about is increasing their network capacity. And, of course, it is to meet customer demand.
But not only is there limited legislation and regulation on this matter, there has been no real public consultation on the construction of these towers before they have gone up. In fact, most of URCA’s regulatory guidelines lean toward obligations of the licensees in their applications, costs, payments, fees and financial compensation. It is predominantly a monetary discussion, with little or nothing about health and safety minimum standards. The dialogue leans heavily towards the issues of sharing physical infrastructure and co-location.
The measly five pages of regulatory guidelines talk about land and compensation for using land and compensation for damage to buildings, trees, and crops ... nothing about humans.
There are criteria listed for the evaluation of applications, including a line-item for health and safety considerations, but nothing substantive on what those considerations are or should be ... just a loose reference to something mentioned somewhere by the World Health Organisation.
URCA states that the “processing of an application may necessitate a field inspection of the location for the proposed tower by URCA”.
May necessitate? Why is a field inspection not mandatory for the construction of any proposed tower?
URCA is the only regulatory body for the mobile communications industry in The Bahamas, so why is it leaving compliance up to the licensee/service provider whose main interest, as clearly demonstrated in this regulatory document and statements of fact, is getting their towers up as quickly as they can and making as much money as they can as soon as they possibly can?
Since I could not find the answers to the questions I had, in local publications, I asked abroad of international colleagues in the business of constructing and managing mobile communications towers, both of whom work in the United States, both of whom descend from the Caribbean region. The first thing they said was “defer to applicable laws for the region”. But there is no statute law in The Bahamas, only regulatory guidelines by URCA.
They gave me a long list of recommendations and priorities based on the environment in which they are accustomed to working. Their responses came with a disclaimer:
“...in the USA... there is a long history of public disclosure on these kinds of projects, even though the system is not by any means perfect.”
“For one thing we would suggest that full use is made of the ministerial arm of the government responsible for the oversight of the project.”
“Public meetings are most useful and in most cases are deemed necessary by statute or legislation. Matters discussed can involve any or all aspects of the proposed tower project or review of the performance of an existing tower.”
“If a decision is taken to erect a structure, each [city or county] will specify a minimum distance that such a tower can be constructed from existing and/or proposed structures. This distance is invariably described as the fall radius measured outward from the centre of the proposed tower. Simply put, ‘you take the height of the tower, assume that it is going to fall over, and then move the pretend fallen tower in a circle, with the base as its centre and its tip as the outer point, and drag it around. The circular line made at the tip defines the “fall zone” within’. [Cities and counties] invariably reserve the right to say whether the project is a go or no-go, on this basis alone.
I am certain that at least some of the many mobile communications towers you see on New Providence do not meet even this simple minimum standard.
In the infinite wisdom of URCA, this should be a concern. Further, in the infinite wisdom of the Cellular Liberalisation Task Force, where is the technical expertise, if something so basic is overlooked or ignored?
In this group of people appointed by government, who is educated enough in mobile communications technology to know that there are some very apparent problems in the mobile communications industry of The Bahamas? Who completed the technical assessments in April of this year? Were any of the assessments made public? Are we back at the freedom of information/accountability/disclosure issue again? Of course we are.
While URCA is busy firming up the new competition in the mobile communications market, it might want to take real responsibility and firm up the industry regulations, perhaps even writing some of them into statute law, and creating/enforcing penalties, with all construction that does not now comply with minimum international best practices to be decommissioned.
It is not visible to me that the decision makers have considered much more than the financial aspects of regulation, for example, where the $62.5m bid equivalent to spectrum licence fee goes, or who will be considered eligible Bahamian investors in a new mobile communications company.
Will URCA, as an authority created by the Bahamian government, seek yet again to shut out average Bahamians in every way, other than taking their money in a poorly regulated industry?
Also of note from my colleagues:
“Health damage can be caused by working for greater than six minutes near any RF emitting omni-directional (whip) antennas.” It is advisable to work at least three feet away from the RF antenna. My question was then “what does ‘near’ mean - touching? Living, walking or driving by? What constitutes proximity?” Apparently, all of the above.
They provided no hard limits, per se, on quantities of exposure to RF radiation, but emphasised that there are guidelines to be followed in any jurisdiction.
“Exposure is taken to be a combination of several factors including, frequency range, electric field strength, magnetic field strength, power density and time of exposure. Generally for frequencies ranging between 0.3MHz and 100,000MHz maximum exposure times should be no more than 6 minutes. This may all seem complicated and difficult to police, but it is the responsibility of the local authorities to have in place systems for monitoring these frequencies and to have legislation in place to deal with abuses.”
None of these kinds of technical guidelines appear in URCA’s recently published technical regulations.
My colleagues go on to say that, in addition to field measurements, “prediction models are generally helpful, but not adequate for the assessment of sites with multiple and different RF sources”. I imagine that this should be a significant concern, in the prolonged debate about infrastructure sharing.
• Send email to nburrows at tribunemedia.net