The topic of transmission towers built to facilitate mobile phone service is well known and some people are of the opinion that mobile phone transmission towers are wreaking havoc on the country. Others are questioning how technology can keep pace with the passing of mobile phone transmission towers. We have to talk about these two aspects, focusing not only on technical and economic issues, but also on many other factors. As pointed out during a budget speech in 2017, the then Finance and Mass Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera pointed out that the increase in the number of mobile phone towers poses environmental as well as health hazards and proposed a fee of Rs. 200,000 per tower per month to discourage the expansion of such towers.
Mobile phone transmission towers were built not only in Sri Lanka but also in other parts of the world with the advancement of technology. Before the use of this type of tower – about two or three decades ago – the country saw a completely different technology. At that time telephone transmission towers were built on high mountain tops. You will no doubt still remember the mobile phone transmission towers that were installed on the tops of mountains such as Suriyakanda. However, a large number of mobile phone transmission towers can now be seen installed around us today.
The towers were erected in this way, not even to the aisle. Dividing the land into octagonal units and placing a cell site in the center of that unit was the general basis. The number of towers installed also increased as the octagonal unit had to be made smaller as needed. The towers installed in this way were used. The voltage was much lower than that used in the towers installed on the high mountain tops. Therefore, it is clear that the telephone transmission towers we see today require less energy to function. But a problem arises when many telephone service providers are operating in the country. That problem arose when each of those companies builds towers on an underlying foundation to provide better service to their clients. Then a number of towers were installed in an area subject to an octagonal unit.
One could argue that reducing the number of mobile phone service providers was not an option to reduce the number of mobile phone towers being built in that way. As of 2017, there were five mobile service providers operating in the local market. No doubt the public had already experienced the advantage of having a more competitive service provider than the market monopoly caused by a single service provider. So it was not unreasonable or wrong to say that mobile phone service should be split between several companies rather than simply imposed on one company.
In such a context, the question arose as to how to reduce the number of mobile phone towers. One could see that the best option out there is for all the mobile phone service providers to tend to transmit across one tower. It’s also a great way to reduce the cost of running a mobile phone tower.
LIRNEasia Chair Prof. Rohan Samarajeewa, former Director General of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, explained that it was difficult to reach such a solution in terms of structural engineering. He pointed out that according to the theories of structural engineering, a structure had a certain amount of weight. Accordingly, even a mobile phone tower had a number of antennas that could be carried. As such the number of antennas to be mounted on a tower was determined based on technical factors. If a heavy-duty iron cell tower made of iron were to be built on the concrete of a building, the number of antennas that could be mounted on the tower could be determined by engineering technology, and that it was difficult to reduce the number of mobile transmission towers due to economic incentives.
It was also impractical to remove existing towers and install towers that could accommodate all five mobile service providers and these measures were not practical as the cost was huge and it took a long time to install the towers. Another aspect of this problem was whether the number of towers could be reduced considering the revenue generated from the towers. That is, the process of removing low-income towers from use and linking their work to another tower. If the mobile phone companies took such a step, the service provided to the subscribers may come to a standstill.
As of 2017, the number of Internet subscribers in the country was approximately 5.5 million. Of these, 4.5 million subscribers enjoyed Internet access through wireless technology. If the number of towers was reduced at the time, nearly 80% of the subscribers in the country who enjoyed internet access would have had poor service facilities. Accordingly, reducing the number of telephone towers believed to have been installed in the country to between 8000 – 10,000 was a challenge.
The argument that mobile phone towers cause health and environmental problems cannot be dismissed. Many Western scholars who talk about the damage caused to the human body by electromagnetic radiation were also focusing on mobile phone towers. They said that we were hundreds of millions of times more exposed to electromagnetic radiation than our grandparents. The current generation is exposed to electromagnetic radiation so many times due to the use of mobile phone towers. Emitted by high frequency radio waves or microwaves or mobile phone transmission towers. It was recognized that such microwaves can cause headaches, memory loss, cardiovascular problems, decreased sperm production in men, the development of malformed children in the womb, and the development of cancer. But some scientists say the waves emitted from cell phone towers were not strong enough to break the chemical bonds of DNA that exist in the cells of the human body. Therefore, there was no possibility of cancer, said scientists who file facts in favor of it.
It is true that the construction of mobile phone towers is polluting the environment. In some parts of the country, towers have been erected without the slightest consideration of the importance of those places. An example of this is the mobile phone tower installed on Athugala in Kurunegala. The construction of mobile phone towers in such historically significant places should not have been allowed. If so, the damage to the environment caused by mobile phone towers could have been avoided. The other easiest way to prevent environmental pollution from telephone towers is to disguise the towers according to the environment in which they were installed. The vines could be seen disguised as towering plants set up in rich ecosystems. This was still not a common tactic in our country. However, not all countries have taken steps to install and maintain mobile phone towers underground.
This article is based on an interview with LIRNEasia Chair, Rohan Samarajiva conducted by Silmumina in 2017.