Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones

Summaries of Oral Evidence

Representatives of the Federation of Electronics Industries


Summary of Oral Evidence presented to IEGMP by Representatives of the Federation of Electronics Industries, on Friday 10 December 1999

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Mr M Dolan, Mobile Telecoms Advisory Group, Federation of Electronics Industries (FEI), Professor P Ramsdale1, One 2 One, Mr P Rumbalow, Orange, and Mr P Harrison, Nokia/Mobile Manufacturers' Forum, presented evidence.

Mr Dolan gave a brief presentation on behalf of the FEI delegation. He suggested there were three ways to manage the issue of possible health effects. The first is to accept that a risk exists and in this situation it would normally be possible to quantify the risk and to introduce mitigation strategies. This would normally result in legislation or regulation. An example of the type of situation for which acceptance would be appropriate is electric shock. At the other extreme it may be possible to deny that any possibility of risk exists. He feels that this is an unhelpful strategy in the context of mobile phones because it restricts the management of the issue to the science and ignores factors such as risk perception. This strategy would have the effect of polarising positions and hindering both dialogue and Government responses. Ultimately it usually encourages litigation. FEI is convinced that it is better to take a middle route which involves sharing information and better communications. This would help to build trust and lead to solution-driven policies rather than conflict-driven strategies.

Mr Dolan tabled a short summary of a Mori poll conducted on behalf of FEI. He noted that this was a preliminary summary and asked that it be kept confidential. He believes that the one clear conclusion from the poll is that the messenger is important. The electronics industry believes that one positive outcome from the work of the Expert Group could be better communication. FEI is generally keen to sign up to a 'middle way' strategy.

The Expert Group wishes to obtain specific information from the industry and had provided a list of questions in advance. The Chairman considered the questions in turn.

Possibilities of roaming and site sharing

Professor Ramsdale is of the opinion that whilst roaming might have some benefits in rural areas, where base stations might not be operating at full capacity, it would be unlikely to have a significant effect in densely populated urban areas where all the networks tend to operate close to full capacity. He does not consider that the UK is very different to other countries with respect to roaming. The Department of Trade and Industry appear to be pursuing a policy of infrastructure competition. Professor Ramsdale suggested that within the overall structure there could be some variations and noted that Virgin currently operates as a service provider using the One 2 One network. With respect to mast sharing, Mr Rumbalow noted that when applying for a new site operators have to demonstrate that they are unable to share existing sites/structures. He also noted that 65% of base stations are shared on existing masts or other structures. Whilst this approach is useful in cutting down on the proliferation of masts, it does require the approval of the landlord, the current mast owner and the local planning authority. Mast sharing often leads to an increase in the height of the mast and many planning authorities prefer to have a greater number of small masts. Moreover, existing masts would have to be suitable for the installation of additional transmitters.

Retention of billing records

Mr Dolan indicated that, although there is some variation between operators, billing records are generally retained for between 18 and 24 months. Some records are subject to data protection legislation and operators have to be careful not to retain unnecessary information. However, if the Expert Group or Government were to recommend that records should be kept for longer, the industry would be happy to accept this. With respect to pre-paid phones, Professor Ramsdale noted that information on these is available, but generally users cannot be identified. Some operators, however, for example Virgin, do record details of purchasers. The Expert Group is keen to identify occupational groups who may have been heavy users in the past when mobile phone use was less widespread. Professor Ramsdale suggested that Vodafone had had a large number of early corporate accounts, but noted that these would have been for analogue phones. The industry does not envisage any problems with the provision of record billing information subject to reasonable confidentiality. Mr Rumbalow noted that the customer base had tended to be fairly stable in the past because of the inconvenience of switching networks. However, the introduction of phone number transfer earlier this year had been intended to stimulate switching between networks thus encouraging greater competition. In reality, the number of customers switching networks is not as great as expected because operators ensure they are offering competitive packages. Overall the 'churn rate' is around 15–20% per year for all operators. Professor Ramsdale noted that those switching off the network are fairly evenly divided between those who simply give up, those who can no longer pay, those who wish to return to a previous network and those who are attracted to a new operator because of a better offer.

Databases of base station sites and their exposure characteristics

Mr Dolan indicated that local councils are required to maintain registers of sites, but that they generally fail to do so in a complete form. There is a national radio sites databank maintained by Crown International for the purpose of identifying existing sites. In addition the Radiocommunications Agency maintains a register of all radio sites. Professor Ramsdale noted that all information supplied to the Radiocommunications Agency is confidential, but that a mechanism exists for release of this information with the permission of the operators; operators are unlikely to object to the release of this information. Nevertheless he urged caution in the interpretation of these data because power output continuously varies at sites as networks are optimised. At present the information contained within the register is somewhat limited because its purpose is principally to allow the identification of sites that cause interference. Additional data could be added in the future. The register covers all sites regardless of whether they are permitted developments or require full planning permission; nanocells are not registered, but the operators are aware of their locations.

Measurements of the output characteristics of phones and information on the specific energy absorption rates (SARs) produced by specific phones

Mr Harrison agreed that at present there is no standardised protocol for measuring the SAR produced by a given phone. The European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardisation (CENELEC) is aiming to produce a standard testing protocol. In general, he feels that manufacturers would look at a range of options including antenna design in an effort to improve product efficiency and therefore battery life; SARs tend to decrease as product efficiency improves. Mr Harrison tabled a figure comparing SARs produced by twenty-five different phones. He feels that variations are generally small and that SAR was typically around 1 watt per kilogram (W/kg). The Group noted that whilst this is true of most phones there is a ten- to twenty-fold variation between the highest and lowest SARs. Mr Harrison believes that SAR is critically dependent on the configuration of the antenna and suggested that even a difference of a few millimetres could make an enormous difference in the SAR value. For example, the Startac 130 has an antenna that protrudes and the Nokia 8810 has an internal antenna that is directional; these phones produced the lowest SARs. Professor Ramsdale suggested that simple SAR measurements may be misleading because fashion phones which often have the lowest SARs are generally poor transmitters and therefore operate at full power for more of the time. Mr Harrison feels that it might be possible to derive a value for power output that takes account of efficiency, although not before the CENELEC standard is agreed early next year. He feels that this would have little value from an engineering point of view, but accepts that it might provide information for the public. Mr Dolan cautioned against the assumption that phones with lower SARs would necessarily be safer. He feels that the provision of this information is important to allow informed choice by consumers and noted that phones with higher output powers may provide other features of benefit to the consumer.

Number of transmission masts in the UK and the number sited on or near schools

Mr Rumbalow feels that it was important to make a distinction between masts and base stations; at present there are around 20,000 base stations sites in the UK. Discussing the system for permitted development, he noted that this had been arranged because the operators were asked to provide a national network and had been required, as a condition of their licences, to roll out effective coverage as quickly as possible. He agreed to provide figures on the proportion of sites that had been obtained through permitted development. However he noted that these would be fairly broad statistics and would include both masts under 15 metres in height and rooftop sites. The procedures for telecommunications development in England and Wales are laid down in Planning Policy Guidance Note 8. These processes have evolved with time. Recent changes include extension of the notification period, a requirement for notices to be posted on the proposed site and a requirement for greater detail relating to the possibility of mast sharing. These changes have led to a greater involvement of the community. Mr Dolan noted that there were currently around 500 base stations (out of 20,000) on or near schools. However, Mr Dolan feels that the issue of siting base stations on school premises is a complex one that cannot be considered in isolation. If operators are to avoid school sites then, because children spend only a proportion of their time at schools, there would also be calls to avoid residential areas. The telecommunications industry feels that this issue needs careful consideration. Removal of existing base station sites from schools would cost in excess of £100 million and the cost would be difficult to justify in relation to the scientific evidence. Members of the public make it clear that they consider they have not been properly consulted and Mr Dolan is strongly of the opinion that greater public consultation in the future would be the most productive option. He accepts that the industry has not always been good at this, but feels that local and national Government should also share the responsibility. Professor Ramsdale noted that One 2 One currently follows full planning procedures on every site. He accepts that whilst consultation has not always been perfect there would always be an attempt to open a dialogue with interested parties such as school governors and parent/teacher associations when proposing to erect a site on or near a school. He gave an example of a proposal to erect a base station site close to a school. The company has written to the head teacher of the school concerned, but believed that the information has not been passed on. Furthermore, following internal review procedures, the company has decided that it would not be appropriate to site a mast so close to a school site and has therefore proposed to move the mast further away. However, the local council has objected on the grounds that this would result in disruption to a hockey pitch even though the company has offered to restore the pitch following laying of cables. Mr Dolan indicated that a future survey by Mori would investigate the issue of base station siting. He feels there is a general problem that the general public wants to use the system, but does not want the infrastructure that goes with it.

Projected increase in the number of base station sites over the next five years

Mr Rumbalow noted that operators are required to provide a specified level of coverage as a condition of their operating licences. All operators have met this condition, but they need to continue to add sites in order to provide additional capacity. As an example he indicated that Orange currently has 6500 sites, but expects to increase this to 10,000 by the end of 2001 to provide additional capacity. In addition, licences for the new third generation system place obligations on operators to provide coverage. Existing operators, if successful in the auction for these licences, would be able to use their networks as a backbone, but would need to supplement this with additional base stations. In addition there would be at least one new operator who would have to roll out an entirely new network. Professor Ramsdale agreed that there would definitely be an increase in the number of sites, but feels that at present it is difficult to predict how many. There would also be an increase in data transmission, but he feels there would be more flexibility within the network and a larger number of smaller base stations.

Information available from mobile phone companies

The FEI delegation tabled a variety of information leaflets produced by mobile phone companies. All four operators produce leaflets, as does FEI. The Orange leaflet is currently being revised and is therefore unavailable. In addition FEI maintains a web site which is viewed as an important point of information distribution. Mr Harrison believes that in general manufacturers do not include leaflets with the phone although the instruction booklets generally state that the phone is a radio transmitter and should be used sensibly. Mr Rumbalow indicated that safety information is provided in the Orange handbook that accompanies each phone. Mr Dolan feels that the provision of information is a critical issue and welcomed any suggestions from the Group that would help in its distribution.

Professor Ramsdale feels that the real issue is how best to distribute the information that is available.

Demonstration of compliance with guidelines for both handsets and base stations

Mr Harrison noted that in the absence of a standardised protocol handsets are generally tested using best practice either by independent test houses or by the manufacturers themselves. He believes that there is considerable merit in the development of a standardised protocol that could be used to demonstrate compliance. At present the literature supplied with phones indicates compliance with current safety guidelines. Handsets that are made and sold in the UK are tested for compliance with the guidelines from the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). In addition the RTTE (Radio Telecommunications Terminal Equipment) Directive, which is due for implementation in April 2000, would provide a basis in law for the implementation of the European Commission EMF recommendations (1999/519/EC). The testing protocol employed would probably be that currently under development by CENELEC.

Professor Ramsdale indicated that for base station sites compliance is generally assessed by means of indirect measurements; detailed measurements have been performed around representative sites. When new sites come onstream spot measurements are performed and the company also performs drive-round tests on its network. These measurements have only been performed in the last year or so and were introduced because of increased outsourcing of antenna installation. Professor Ramsdale feels that the equipment is unlikely to fail in such a way that it would increase exposures and suggested that a rogue site or other problems with the system would be easily identified at control centres. Professor Ramsdale indicated that exclusion zones are always calculated assuming worst case conditions for a site fully in use and operating at full power. They are set to comply with ICNIRP guidelines. However, he felt that the question of ICNIRP versus guidelines from the National Radiological Protection Board is something of a red herring because members of the public should not have access to the site anyway. The only time that he can envisage a problem is in a situation where, say, an equipment store, requiring staff access, is located in the middle of a roof with antennas mounted on the edge of the roof; but this would be very unusual. The Group was concerned about the provision of information should anybody manage to enter the area. Professor Ramsdale indicated that warning signs are always placed on the entry door to a roof and that similar signs are placed on masts. These signs are used to demonstrate compliance with ICNIRP guidelines and to ensure that nobody enters exclusion zones. There is some variation in the signage used by different operators, but the underlying philosophy is the same. Mr Rumbalow noted the current health and safety legislation requires the operators to ensure the site is secure and to provide appropriate information for the landlord.

Merits of shields and other devices for reducing exposure

Mr Harrison noted that the Global System for Mobiles uses adaptive power control. Adding a shield to the antenna reflects power back into the phone and de-tunes the transmitter resulting in an increase in power output from both the handset and the base station. The consequence is that the phone will get hotter, the battery will run down faster and calls are more likely to be dropped (lost) at the edge of a cell. Although consumers might choose to use shields, they are not necessary. The Microshield product can reduce SAR, but results in a transmitter that is no longer operating efficiently. Professor Ramsdale indicated that in order to establish the same quality of radio link it is necessary to have the same output power. Given the small size of mobile phone antennas he considers it unlikely that the presence of a shield will result in a redistribution of power along the antenna. He considers that power would be radiated not just from the tip of the antenna, but also from the shielded area and the phone case. Mr Harrison suggested that the best approach is to use good antenna design to improve product efficiency and this would result in a reduction in SAR. Manufacturers do not use the safety issue as a marketing strategy for hands-free kits because this sends the wrong message.

The Group were interested to know why some phone manufacturers have filed patents for designs of phones suggesting benefits to health. Mr Dolan suggested that although some companies have made statements about health in a patent, this is simply because they are attempting to cover all possibilities. He was not well informed on this issue as most of the companies involved are not FEI members.

The FEI delegation was unable to provide much information about the Terrestrial Enhanced Trunk Radio (TETRA) public access private mobile radio system currently operated by Dolphin. Professor Ramsdale noted that the TETRA system differed from mobile phones because the former employs a radio channel that is used by many individuals whereas the latter is designed to allow one individual to contact another.

Mr Dolan indicated that he would provide written answers to a further five technically detailed questions that had been submitted to FEI.

The Chairman thanked the Mr Dolan and his team for their input to the work of the Group and looked forward to receiving the further information they had offered to provide.

The FEI representatives indicated they would welcome the opportunity to return for further discussions at a future date. The Chairman said he could give no guarantee of a future meeting, but invited FEI to write to them if they felt they had any additional contributions to make.

1 Professor Ramsdale had previously given oral evidence to the Group.


First issued 5 April 2000