The steadily rising numbers of antenna sites for cellular networks, many of which are being deployed in stealth fashion for aesthetic appeal, are raising eyebrows among those concerned about the impacts of excessive radio-frequency (RF) radiation.
Six engineers examined more than 5,000 sites and found on average that one in 10 of those sites violated FCC rules requiring, among other things, the use of barricades and signs to prevent people from getting too close, according to the Wall Street Journal. Despite those findings, the publication reported that the FCC has only issued two citations to mobile operators since rules were adopted in 1996.
Under a consent decree signed with the FCC this past spring, Verizon Communications (NYSE: VZ) agreed to pay $50,000, train employees and contractors, and check other sites after it was accused of RF violations in Pennsylvania and Connecticut related to unlocked access to a rooftop and a missing sign.
Further, in one recent instance, engineer Marvil Wessel spotted lawn chairs near a T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) antenna installation whose emissions violated safety limits. The structure was painted brown to match a fence. Upon notification from the Wall Street Journal, T-Mobile installed warning signs and a chain to restrict access in front of the antenna.
However, property owners and residents often become upset regarding RF notification signs, which they oppose due to aesthetics and concerns they might reduce their property value. Tamara Preiss, Verizon's vice president of federal regulatory affairs, told the FCC via letter in February that tenants at a condo complex in New York City had hired a lawyer and demanded the operator remove RF notification signs from a terrace access point.
According to the FCC, because of the height and manner in which most cellular antennas are deployed, ground-level exposures are much less than exposures if one were at the same height and directly in front of an antenna. "Measurements made near typical cellular and PCS installations, especially those with tower-mounted antennas, have shown that ground-level power densities are thousands of times less than the FCC's limits for safe exposure," according to a special FCC webpage.
The commission acknowledges that cellular antennas mounted at rooftop locations could expose people to RF levels greater than those typically encountered on the ground. "However, once again, exposures approaching or exceeding the safety guidelines are only likely to be encountered very close to and directly in front of the antennas," the FCC said.
Some studies have shown that RF radiation might have immune system and neurological effects, among other things. When it comes to any link between RF exposure and cancer, the FCC notes, "Results to date have been inconclusive."
In addition to concerns about public exposure to RF radiation, there are worries about the impact on laborers regularly working near cell sites. The FCC has set separate RF limits for the general public and those working near antennas, and workers who venture within 20 feet in front of an antenna are supposed to have special training and carry RF monitors.
Industry trade group CTIA has said cellular antennas are deployed in more than 300,000 U.S. locations, but the FCC says that it "does not have the resources or the personnel to routinely monitor the emissions for all of the thousands of transmitters that are subject to FCC jurisdiction." The FCC does not even have a database of cell sites.
Peter Chaney, director of safety and health for the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, told the Wall Street Journal that such a database would help protect workers. "We want workers to know that the antennas are there and that there may be a potential hazard," he said.
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