Mobile phone companies all over Britain are taking part in a mad scramble to throw up transmitter masts before laws are passed which might inconvenience them. Soon they will need to apply for planning permission and-to their horror-possibly face some measure of democratic control over their activities.
A recent report by law firm Nabarro Nathansan and property consultants Telecom Estates estimated that Britain currently has 22,000 sites with transmitters and that a further 40,000 will be installed over the next three years. Densely populated urban areas will need a phone cell every 500 yards.
A rational way to deal with the questions this raises would be to have a socially owned, socially controlled industry which listened to ordinary people, listened to independent scientific research and avoided duplication of masts because of different commercial interests. Instead the whole process has been driven by multinational corporations, and the lack of regulations has been a gift to them.
The companies have rights of compulsory purchase. Under current planning regulations, no consultation is necessary and so it hardly ever takes place. The equipment is needed because of the explosive growth in cellular communications technology. The universal mobile telephone system (UMTS) enables transmission of huge amounts of information. It is estimated that over the next decade 90 percent of all electronic communications which currently travel by landline will be carried out through cellular networks.
These work through radio frequency (RF) transmissions and generate the same form of electromagnetic radiation as microwave ovens. British safety standards only take into account the 'thermal effects' of the radiation-how much it heats you up. Biological effects are not considered.
The only thing scientists seem to agree on is that the evidence for harmful effects from base station radiation is inconclusive. According to the government's Stewart report last year, 'There is now some preliminary scientific evidence that exposures to RF radiation may cause subtle effects on biological functions, including those of the brain. This does not necessarily mean that health is affected but it is not possible to say that exposure to RF radiation, even at levels below national guidelines, is totally without potential adverse health effects.'
The likelihood is that, the less healthy you are, the more likely you are to be affected-and small children absorb RF radiation at much higher rates than adults. This is why the Stewart report and the environment committee of the Scottish Parliament recommended 'a precautionary approach' in siting masts. This means away from housing, schools and hospitals, yet these are the very places where masts are sited in many areas across the country.
Although some councils have belatedly committed themselves to the precautionary principle, the general pattern is that planners are working hand in glove with the multinationals.
There is big money at stake. The mobile phone market is expected to be worth $200 billion within a few years and the big four in Britain-Orange, BT Cellnet, Vodaphone and One2One -are part of giant European companies. These companies have made huge profits in the past, but they are now under pressure.
With grave doubts about phones linked to the internet and other failed projects, the mobile companies are increasingly pinning their hopes on selling to children and riding the craze for text messages. According to predictions, February will have been a landmark month when, for the first time, one billion text messages will be sent across British mobile phone networks.
While the companies plan their marketing strategies, the phone mast construction programme has faced opposition from hundreds of campaigns across Britain. The driving force of these protests is resistance to the ability of rich multinationals and spineless councils to trample over our fears and democratic rights because of the dictates of the free market.
New Labour has confirmed its pro-business credentials by watering down the conclusions of the Stewart report. The phone company Orange suggests we should trust it because it is 'a household name'.
Increasing numbers of people are adding it to the list of illustrious household names such as McDonald's and Nike.