Hate Side Of 'Swedes' Cellphone Love Affair
Journalist: Jurgen Hecker
February 22, 2004
Swedes have had a long love
affair with mobile phones, but now they are worrying that new 3G mobile
technology might be bad for their health and the environment.
health factor is an extra problem for telecom operators trying to roll out
a new generation of mobile phones.
Operators are slowly overcoming
financial and technical snags in the gigantic undertaking to build new
base stations to carry third-generation (3G) mobile phone
But they still face stubborn resistance from Swedes
who fear that the new transmitters may be harmful to their health and also
object that they are unsightly.
The universal mobile
telecommunications system (UMTS), also known as third generation or 3G, is
designed to provide email, high-speed Internet surfing and live sound and
image broadcasts to compatible handsets.
Operators have promised to
set up a network covering nearly 100 percent of the Swedish population,
which involves the construction of 8,400 base stations, or masts, across
the country. But local authorities have authorised less than 60 percent of
Old-fashioned red tape explains a big chunk of the missing
approvals, but the slow response also reveals a determination of many
citizens to keep their region a transmitter-free zone.
includes the city of Trelleborg, on Sweden's southernmost tip, which wants
not a single base station to be built there.
Defying the central government, Trelleborg said it
wants "satisfactory assurances" about health risk from radiation and will
not change its mind, despite government pressure and court action from
Whether Trelleborg remains a blank spot on
the 3G map will depend on "whether the legal system will accept the
municipal decision, or declare it invalid," Magnus Axelsson, spokesman for
Swedish telecommunications authority PTS, told AFP.
And the defiant
city is not alone, as Swedes sign petitions against 3G or even take to
outright sabotage, such as last year's destruction of a newly-erected
72-metre high mast in Sotenaes, in southern Sweden.
at the official Swedish Radiation Protection Authority (SSI) are adamant
that the protests for health reasons are misguided.
is very definitely that the base stations, the antennae, pose no radiation
protection problem," Lars Mjoenes, SSI coordinator for natural and
non-ionising radiation, told AFP.
Mjoenes acknowledged that mobile
phones themselves may pose a health risk, and said that Swedes are wise to
use their handsets with earphones while keeping the phone itself tucked
away in a bag or pocket.
This is so widespread that busy Stockholm
streets can sometimes appear like scenes from a lunatic asylum, with
hundreds of people apparently talking to themselves, sometimes
gesticulating to make a point as they stroll along.
But the base
stations themselves are a different story, Mjoenes said. "You can never
get a serious scientist to say that something is harmless, but research
shows that radiation from the stations is extremely low," he
Grassroots protesters, however, mistrust the official line,
believing that the Swedish government is riding roughshod over health
concerns to help boost the fortunes of national telecom champion Ericsson,
which makes mobile phone networks.
"The government wants Sweden to
be a shop window for Ericsson. If it works here, then other countries will
buy the technology. But if Sweden says 'no', then it's the death sentence
for Ericsson. They will not be able to sell," said Jesper Sandahl, who
owns a small farm near the small city of Goetene in southern Sweden, and
who has been campaigning against the building of 3G-masts.
neighbour Anhild Haller suffers from hyper-sensitivity to electricity and
says that being nearer than 1 500 metres to a 3G-mast worsens her symptoms
of fast heartbeat and uncontrollable trembling because of 3G's higher
frequency compared to the previous generation.
"It's very painful,
it makes me feel mortally ill," she said.
One Ericsson manager,
requesting anonymity, told AFP that "of course the government wants
Ericsson to succeed, and that means that 3G has to succeed".
many 3G-opponents readily admit that health risks may turn out to be less
than feared, they are unhappy with the roll-out decision while there is
"The third generation has not really been
tested," Sandahl fumed.
SSI's Mjoenes said he suspected that many
people objected to the masts because they are not esthetically pleasing,
with health reasons being something of a pretext.
"What seems to
happen is that people think they're ugly, but that's not a good enough
reason to stop them, so they focus on the health aspect," he
Sure enough, residents have reported falling housing prices
in areas where tall masts are being built as people would rather not have
the constructions too near to home.
Operators, adressing the
esthetic problems, hope to hide base stations on tall buildings or even in
church spires, but that's impossible in the countryside.
"I like it
here, but I don't want to have to stare at a mast," said Jesper Sandahl.
Looking across the unspoilt countryside, he points a finger at a 3G-mast
two kilometres away: "It's like shit in paradise."
According to the
PST, 57 percent of applications to the municipal authorities for telecom
masts have been approved, eight percent rejected, and the rest
About 1 500 masts have been built so far.
are committed to covering 98.7 percent of the total population and the
government will not let them off the hook, which means that cities like
Trelleborg will have to be brought into line.
"PTS is not going to
change the license conditions and PTS will take proper action in order to
force the 3G-operators to fulfil there commitments," Axelsson
Technology Minister Ulrica Messing on Friday said she was
"worried" by the slow speed at which 3G was being built and said the
government may force operators to pool their resources to speed up the