Ironically, the more serious worry is that weaker signals are forcing mobile handsets to compensate by ramping up transmission power, effectively resulting in higher radiation exposure for users from the phone itself.
Since September 2012, following a Rajasthan High Court order banning the deployment of towers atop schools and hospitals, the crackdown on them has intensified, with Jaipur, Mumbai and Delhi being the three worst-affected cities. On January 21, the Supreme Court extended by three weeks the January 27 deadline set by the high court to remove mobile phone towers installed overhead or in the vicinity of schools, hospitals and playgrounds. The apex court is hearing a plea filed by the telecom operators challenging the Rajasthan High Court ruling.
In Jaipur, in the wake of the 2012 high court ruling, around 350-400 towers are estimated to have been shut down, while in Mumbai around 100 towers have been shut after the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation banned installation of towers on schools and hospitals. In Delhi, the movement against these towers has progressively picked up pace, largely in the wake of activism by local resident welfare associations, with around 100 towers now estimated to be shut, according to industry estimates.
“A human body is exposed to more EMF (electromagnetic field) radiation in case of a call from mobile phone in comparison to the radiation from a mobile tower. The mobile phone is a weak source of radio frequency signal, but it is very close to the human body,” said a report by the Department of Telecommunications, ‘Mobile Communication — Radio Waves & Safety’, released in October 2012.
In light of this, in December, the Telecom Ministry rejected a proposal, made by an inter-ministerial committee looking into the radiation limits for mobile phones and towers, to ban the setting up of mobile towers near schools and hospitals. The idea to impose a ban was first floated by the Telecommunication Engineering Centre (TEC), the standardisation wing of the Department of Telecom.
The ministry, however, accepted the other key proposal made by the committee for lowering the EMF radiation levels for mobile tower antennas by one-tenth of the existing ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection) exposure level, effective September 1, 2012. Indian standards are now effectively 10 times more stringent than more than 90 per cent of the countries, according to the Department of Telecom.
In India, the SAR (specific absorption rate) limit — or the rate at which radio frequency energy is absorbed in the human body over a given time — prescribed for cellphones is 1.6 watt/ kg averaged over one gram of human tissue. From September 2013, all mobile handsets have to carry the respective SAR limit.
Industry insiders say there are 500,000 towers in the country and only around 15,000 are non-compliant with the new norms, which is being corrected.
“Opposition to towers by residents in an area is a bigger concern, as this may lead to towers going off colonies, which will impact the overall service,” points out Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) director general Rajan Mathews.
Analysts give another reason why reducing towers might not be a viable proposition. India depends almost exclusively on wireless technologies like cellphones for connectivity and lacks an adequate fixed line (copper wire) or optical fibre network to fall back on.
This again means that to manage adequate connectivity with a lesser number of towers, there would be the need to radiate more power, thus exacerbating the very harm that towers reportedly cause.
“Laying the optical fibre network line now will incur huge costs, which no one is in a position to invest in,” points out Mathews. “The DoT has come out with new norms, which are better than various European countries, to limit tower radiations and we are in the process of making all the towers compliant to the new norms.”
Companies are also trying to find a solution to the problem of towers being installed on buildings without requisite clearances — largely because municipal departments are tardy in clearing applications. It is estimated that Delhi and Mumbai together have around 5,000 towers on such structures. Companies are now trying to bunch their requirements on to common towers to reduce their footprint.
According to Umang Das, DG, Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association, there are “no illegal towers, as such”. “The towers which are being termed as illegal towers are unapproved towers. These towers are not unapproved because of our fault but because the municipal authority has taken more than the stipulated 30-day time to give approval.”