The public’s expectations from telecom operators are a ubiquitous network, seamless connectivity, good quality of service (QoS) and 24×7 network availability. At the same time, they have apprehensions regarding the health hazards associated with electromagnetic field (EMF) radiations from base transceiver stations (BTSs) and mobile handsets. The issue regarding the ill-effects of EMF radiations from telecom towers was first raised in a 2010 report on cellphone tower radiation submitted by Professor Girish Kumar of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT). The report highlighted the health hazards of radiation from cellphones and cell towers, and contended that the radiation guidelines recommended by institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) and the Federal Communications Commission were not adequate. Following this, independent studies were conducted in India and there was a call to devise stricter EMF radiation norms.
Meanwhile, DoT and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) along with several other organisations have been trying to convince people that EMF radiations from telecom towers are well within the prescribed limits, and cause no major harm to public health. However, the public continues to be sceptical and has been opposing the erection of new towers. The long-standing debate on EMF radiations, therefore, continues to attract attention.
EMF radiation norms
In 2008, the Government of India adopted the ICNIRP guidelines to lay down its own EMF radiation norms. The licence conditions for operators were amended, under which directions were given to comply with the ICNIRP-prescribed radiation norms. Operators were also directed to report their compliance with radiation limits and levels through self-certification of their BTSs to the respective telecom enforcement resource and monitoring (TERM) units of DoT.
In 2010, DoT set up an inter-ministerial committee (IMC) comprising officers from DoT, the Indian Council of Medical Research (Ministry of Health), Department of Biotechnology, and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to examine the effects of EMF radiations from BTSs and mobile phones. Based on the IMC’s recommendations, the permissible limit of EMF radiations from towers was reduced to one-tenth of that prescribed by ICNIRP with effect from September 1, 2012.
As a result, the norms for the 900 MHz band in India currently stand at 0.45 watt per square metre, as against the ICNIRP norms, which stand at 4.5 watts per square metre in the same frequency. Similarly, for the 1800 MHz and 2100 MHz frequency bands, the ICNIRP norms stand at 9 and 10.5 watts per square metre respectively, whereas the norms in India are 0.9 watts and 1.05 watts per square metre respectively. Thus, the revised norms in India are much more stringent than the ICNIRP radiation norms.
Despite DoT’s attempt to revise the EMF radiation norms in the country in order to dispel public apprehensions regarding the harmful effects of EMF radiations from towers, the issue is still affecting telecom operators. Moreover, of late, the issue of QoS and call drops has taken centre stage with TRAI being particularly stringent about these two parameters. Operators are, therefore, in a dilemma as, on the one hand, they need to erect towers to address these two issues and on the other, they are forced to install towers away from residential areas owing to the apprehensions regarding EMF radiations.
There was also a public outcry when new entrant Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited installed towers for the launch of its 4G services in Mumbai. However, a recent study conducted by IIT Bombay found that the towers deployed by the operator were environment friendly and in compliance with EMF radiation norms. In the study, the tower design was examined from the point of view of EMF exposure and it was found that the radiation levels were well below the safety standards stipulated by DoT. These towers were found to be 100 per cent compliant with Indian as well as international EMF radiation norms. Meanwhile, the number of telecom towers violating EMF radiation norms has reportedly declined. According to the Ministry of Communications, around 72 telecom towers were found exceeding the prescribed EMF radiation level in 2013; this figure came down to 24 in 2014 and 12 in 2015. In May 2016, no tower was found violating the norms.
Policy and regulatory initiatives
In order to address the concerns of the public as well as operators, and ensure compliance with the EMF radiation norms, various steps are being taken by the relevant authorities. DoT recently imposed a penalty of Rs 108 million on telecom operators for violating the EMF radiation norms. This was done after testing 319,000 BTSs, of which 205 were found to be non-compliant with radiation rules. Moreover, DoT has assured that it will look into the concerns of the members of Parliament who had questioned the studies denying the health hazards associated with EMF radiations from telecom towers.
In addition, DoT has announced the launch of an online portal, Tarang Sanchar, which will let users check the EMF radiation compliance status of towers across the country and get a specific one tested on request by DoT on paying a fee. The portal has been set up in coordination with the telecom industry and has reportedly been populated with data from around 1.25 million BTSs. It will enable users to view tower-specific details such as its operator, the supporting technology (2G/3G/4G) and its compliance with EMF radiation norms. The portal is currently in the final testing phase and is due for an official launch soon.
The Supreme Court has also been actively involved in addressing citizen concerns and recently dismissed claims made by telecom operators stating that the radiation levels from cellular towers were within permissible limits. In addition, the apex court asked DoT to submit information regarding tower radiations as it refused to accept industry claims that these emissions were harmless. In response, DoT has told the Supreme Court that there was no conclusive proof to establish the adverse effects of tower radiations on human health. It has also assured the court that research studies have been commissioned to examine the issue further.
According to a recent study conducted by WHO, existing evidence does not confirm any adverse health consequences of exposure to low-level electromagnetic fields. Various experts as well as doctors have also stated that EMF radiations from telecom towers are not harmful. In spite of these assurances, a section of the population is still wary of the potential health hazards of EMF radiations.
To convince people against the perceived ill-effects of EMF radiations from telecom towers, several organisations have been undertaking awareness initiatives. DoT is playing a proactive role in organising such awareness campaigns, which stress on the fact that the EMF radiation norms in India are stringent as compared to other countries and that there are no risks associated with EMF radiations. In a recent awareness campaign, telecom enforcement resource and monitoring (TERM) cell of Kerala, stated that the fears of EMF radiations adversely affecting health were not based on scientific evidence and that even birds, bees and snakes were reportedly safe.
TRAI also recently stated that there are no ill-effects of EMF radiations. In addition, various non-governmental organisations and the Cellular Operators Association of India have been actively involved in raising awareness on the issue to address public concerns regarding the erection of telecom towers in residential areas.
There is a need to take a holistic view of the issue, taking into account not only the apprehensions of the public, but also the concerns of operators. The government is already in the process of formulating a right-of-way policy, which will enable operators to acquire land from the state government and local bodies within a stipulated time frame for setting up telecom towers. Moreover, DoT has stated that a new policy, which will make it easier to set up telecom towers in residential areas, is in the pipeline.