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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.

The 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 services.

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 them.

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.

This 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 regional authorities.

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.

But scientists at the official Swedish Radiation Protection Authority (SSI) are adamant that the protests for health reasons are misguided.

"Our position 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 said.

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.

His 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".

While 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 still controversy.

"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 said.

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 pending.

About 1 500 masts have been built so far.

Operators 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 warned.

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 network construction.

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