In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

WiFi in Swindon – free access but at what cost?

Posted by seumasach on March 17, 2010


19th November, 2009

As recently covered by the BBC and the Times, Swindon Borough Council are offering a free public WiFi service to the entire of the town of Swindon. Offering high bandwidth, cheap services, this sounds like a technological boon for the residents of the town, but could it also be a public health experiment when so little is still understood about the potential health impacts of wireless technology?

There are currently about 75 mobile phone base stations in Swindon. Swindon Borough Council are about to effectively increase this number 20-fold. Swindon Council have invested about one-third of a million pounds in a commercial venture to exploit the modern telecommunications boom. They plan to install some 1,400 WiFi Access Points (mini-base-stations) across the city, mainly on lamp-posts. That works out to about one every 100 metres in every direction thought the city. Many of these will be right outside bedroom windows.

Image courtesy of Next-Up organisation. For more pictures, see:2000 people demonstrate against electrosmog in Stuttgart.

The claimed advantage is that residents of Swindon can have a couple of hours free WiFi access throughout the city. Only time will tell exactly how useful this is. The Council claim that they will be able to offer connection speeds up to 20 Mbs. However, WiFi access points can usually only handle about 8 or so simultaneous users without significant data-bottlenecks and hold-ups, especially if people are watching videos or other using high bandwidth data streams. The speed then usually drops dramatically and you get video-freeze-ups and missing bits.

So, it is likely that Swindon residents, who do much more than check their emails and browse a few Internet sites, will still need to subscribe to a proper broadband Internet service as well. The Council say that residents will be able to purchase more time on the WiFi network. However, WiFi networks are not designed for high user numbers and multiple high-bandwidth requirements and so this is unlikely to provide an adequate quality of service to such users.

The downside is that Swindon will be flooded with an extra level of pulsing microwave signals. Officially, these do us no harm, but there is already considerable and mounting evidence that at least some people (5% or so seems a reasonable ballpark figure – see Table 10 in Neil Irvine’s “HPA report” from 2005) experience adverse effects on their well-being.

No study has been published on the health of people regularly exposed to WiFi signals. There have been over 10 published studies on the effects of similar pulsing microwave signals from mobile phone base stations. These show a range of adverse effects on the well-being of people living nearby. Top of the list are headaches, concentration and memory difficulties, chronic fatigue, sleep problems, depression, irritability and behavioural problems. Other reported effects include heart rhythm disruption and nosebleeds. As yet, none of these constitute some form of irrefutable proof, but both the similarity of the technology, exposure, and reported symptoms, leave WiFi as at least a plausible candidate with regards to the published science so far. As a result, some form of precautionary approach by avoiding exposure where it isn’t necessary seems warranted.

The literature is still hinting that levels of 0.6 V/m upwards, typical for those using the wirelessly enabled laptops measured by the HPA, may increase the risk of cancer [Wolf 2004,Eger 2004] and a number of other somatic neurological symptoms [Santini 2002,Santini 2003,Navarro 2003,Bortkiewicz 2004,Nikolova 2005,Yurekli 2006,Abdel-Rassoul 2007,Preece 2007,Augner 2008]It is quite possible that these levels could be exceeded in many areas of Swindon from these new access points alone.

Image courtesy of Next-Up organisation.

There are repeated claims, from both the industry and from misinformed technology enthusiasts, that WiFi uses only a few watts of energy, “less that a light bulb”, and therefore can’t do any harm. We need to understand the fact that light and microwaves used for communication have very different frequencies and signal shapes which result in them interacting with people in very different ways. We are not talking here about thermal effects and there is considerable evidence for concern at very low exposure levels. Many scientists, public health officials, MEPs and concerned citizens are now calling for a more precautionary and sensible approach with regards to wide scale adopting of wireless technology.

The German Government’s health protection agency recommends the public reduce their exposure to high frequency radiation to minimise health risks. It recommends the removal of cordless DECT phones, use cabled connections rather than WiFi and Bluetooth and site WiFi access points away from people, including at work. The Frankfurt City Government and Bavarian Parliament have recommended against the installation of WiFi in schools. This is becoming quite a political issue in Germany. The two pictures show a recent demonstration in Stuttgart against the spread of electrosmog that is increasingly adversely affecting many people.

The Director of the European Environmental Agency (EEA), recently provided comments on public health implications of electromagnetic fields. Professor McGlade provided a set of recommendations and said “there is a need to reconsider the scientific basis for the present EMF exposure standards which have serious limitations such as reliance on the contested thermal effects paradigm; and simplistic assumptions about the complexities of radio frequency exposures.”

David Carpenter, MD, Director of the Institute for Health and the Environment, School of Public Health, University of Albany, New York, has said ‘Based on the existing science, many public health experts believe it is possible we will face an epidemic of cancers in the future resulting from uncontrolled use of cell phones and increased population exposure to WiFi and other wireless devices.

The French Agency for Environmental and Occupational Health Safety (Afsset) has just issued a new report, recommending that:

  1. Choosing low SAR mobile wireless devices. To do this, it would be advisable to make indicators of maximum exposure (SAR for example) for all personal equipment using radiofrequency technology (mobile phones, baby monitors, etc.) generally available to users. It would also be advisable to make the public aware of these exposure indicators by developing clear labelling;
  2. Identifying and mapping places with clearly higher values than the average ambient level and suggesting procedures aimed at reducing the exposure in these places;
  3. Carefully considering the consequences, for the general population (children, etc.) and for mobile phone users, of a reduction in the power of masts that could lead to the increase in the exposure to the head to radiofrequencies emitted by mobile phones;
  4. Reducing the exposure of children by encouraging moderate use of mobile phones;
  5. Providing users of personal equipment that emits radiofrequencies with simple measures to allow them to reduce their exposure if they so wish. For example:
    • choosing systems that minimise the power emitted by DECT cordless telephones;
    • bringing WiFi emission on/off switches on “modem” type emitters into general use;
    • allowing multiple cable access on WiFi “modems” at no extra cost;
    • as the exposure level decreases heavily with distance from the transmitter, on equipment such as the base of a DECT telephone, Bluetooth peripherals or baby monitors, a distance of a few tens of centimetres between the equipment and the user could considerably decrease the exposure;
    • simplifying hands-free kits.

Please also read read our overview on WiFi and exposure levels and health. As part of the UK HPA EMF Discussion Group, we and a number of others in the group put together a WiFi memorandum to the Health Protection Agency about some study work that they were about to present. They have since reported their findings, which is all about measurements because they were told NOT to include anything on health effects (by the Health Minister). Research into the health of those actually exposed to WiFi is now urgently overdue, looking not into exposure levels but actual symptoms – even something along the lines of the Bamberg doctors work would give useful futher indications of a potential risk.

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