Birds on the wire
In January 2003, on what was presumably a slow weekend for news, The Observer newspaper delivered its readers an astonishing scoop. Mobile phones, it announced, were responsible for the decline of the British sparrow population. The only evidence cited by its reporter was a correlation between the dwindling of the sparrow population and the introduction of mobile phone masts. But a correlation, as any science reporter ought to know, is not evidence of causation. Two months later, by the time the theory was officially disowned by the British Trust for Ornithology, it scarcely seemed to matter. It was easy for the story to strike a chord. Mobile phones, many of us seem to believe, are doing us harm. We just have to find out what harm they are doing.
Critics of mobile technologies argue that they are essentially hostile to social life. Even if they cannot be blamed for sparrows falling off their perches, mobiles have been held responsible for a burgeoning litany of social ills. Within the media, they have been blamed for everything from a crime wave to a growth in teenage illiteracy. The evidence for most of these allegations is shaky at best. In the context of a "risk society", it seems that mobiles can become a convenient repository for existing anxieties which have little to do with the technology itself. Nevertheless, in a backlash against the mobile, a sizeable minority of pubs, restaurants and leisure centres have banned phones from their premises. On extremely flimsy evidence, mobiles are also forbidden in hospitals, a ban which is proving almost impossible to enforce and which doctors are currently campaigning to see lifted. Despite the fact that the UK government often seems to be in thrall to new digital technologies, mobiles are even banned within the Palace of Westminster.
But by far the greatest source of mobile anxiety surrounds the health effects of using them. It is curious that many people who are emotionally and practically dependent on mobile phones are simultaneously suspicious that they might be irradiating their brains. Back in 2001, a survey published by Guardian/ICM in 2001 found that around half of the population is worried that mobile phones may be a health hazard. In the same year, twelve British local authorities had imposed bans on mobile phone masts on local authority-controlled land, in response to a rising tide of public anxiety.
In May 2000 the UK Government published the results of a scientific study by an independent group of experts – the Stewart report – into the possible harmful effects posed by mobile phones. The balance of evidence, it concluded, was that mobile handsets "do not cause adverse health effects to the general population." Following publication of the Stewart report, the Government invited the Radiocommunications Agency to measure the emissions which flow from mobile base stations to ensure that they did not exceed internationally recognised guidelines for exposure to radiation. Again, the Agency reported back that emission levels were many hundreds of times less than that recommended by the guidelines.
While the Stewart report found no evidence that mobile phones are harmful, it also proposed a "precautionary approach" to their use. But the resulting message – "mobile phones are safe but take care using them anyway" – seems to have done more to stoke irrational public anxieties than assuage them. This fudged conclusion sent a very mixed signal to the community activists who are concerned about masts on top of their schools and churches, and to the local authorities which are forced to deal with those anxieties. It has also encouraged the establishment of official or unofficial moratoria on the erection of mobile masts by local authorities, which is now seriously impeding the rollout of third generation mobile technology. The Mobile Operators Association estimate that a full 14, 000 new masts will be required to build third-generation mobile networks over the next five years. But in Scotland, for example, 16 out of 32 local councils are currently refusing to allow the building of base stations on public land. The rollout of 3G has been substantially slowed down in Edinburgh, for example: citizens in one of the UK's biggest cities may be denied use of the new mobile for up to a year.
Our conversations with mobile users suggest that many are highly enthusiastic about the project of mobilisation within local public services. The new generation of mobile technologies will make possible a whole range of ways to improve and enhance the relationship between citizens and local public service providers. Given the possibilities, it seems a cruel irony that so many local authorities are hindering our access to the new mobile devices.
Government should heed the concerns of its citizens about the harmful effects of mobile phones. But a more responsible course of action would be to take a firmer and less ambiguous lead in dealing with those anxieties. The public needs to know that the cost-benefit analysis being employed by many of their local representatives errs somewhat recklessly on the side of caution. It amplifies out of proportion the risks of harmful effects, and recklessly discounts the benefits for citizens, consumers and local governments of using the new technologies. If such a cautious approach had been taken to the rollout of second generation networks in the UK, we would never have been able to use mobiles in the way we do now.
The development of new mobile services depends on ubiquitous coverage. Individual local authorities should not be allowed to slow that process down. There is no doubt that communication between network operators, local authorities and local communities needs to be improved. Aesthetic criteria about the siting of base stations also need to be taken into account. But beyond this, local authorities need to communicate an appropriate understanding of the role of uncertainty in the development of scientific knowledge, together with an understanding of the benefits of mobile technology and relative risk factors which can help to put phone fears into perspective. They must also take greater steps to make their own properties and land available for the siting of phone masts. Simply sitting on the fence, while the infrastructure for the next generation of mobile services waits to be rolled out, is no longer an option.
James Harkin is the author of Mobilisation: the Growing Public Interest in Mobile Technology , published in 2003. email@example.com