An Overview of the Situation

Around the World

In the mid-1980s, fewer than 3% of people around the world used cell phones.

Now there are 4 billion cell phone users around the world and towers and antennae have been going up at an unprecedented rate to support them.
The average age of a child receiving its first mobile phone is 8.

By 2012, there were 5 million phone towers around the world.

Yet no research was conducted first to make sure that it was safe.

Citizens around the world are protesting, and some governments are beginning to listen.

The Situation in Canada

The number of cell phone users in Canada rose from 100,000 in 1987 to more than 24 million by the end of 2010[1].

13,000 cellphone towers exist in Canada and this number is increasing at a fast rate because Canadians are leading the world in smartphone adoption which uses lots of bandwidth.

Although wireless technology (cell phone and internet) is accessible to 99% of the population, communications companies are pushing to increase the bandwidth for video usage. Already 50% of Internet usage in North America is for videos and games.  The communications companies want more towers to increase their profits and are building them ever closer to homes. They are now expanding to rural areas at an increasingly fast pace.

An Undemocratic Process Slanted Towards Industry

In Canada, a country claiming to set a model for others, if a telecommunications company wants to erect a cell tower on which to mount microwave antennas, it must meet Industry Canada standards, namely:

  • Inform the local authorities in charge of land use (the municipality);
  • Send written notice to residents within a radius equal to three times the height of the proposed cell tower;
  • Publish a notice in a locally distributed newspaper and give the public 30 days to respond to the notice in writing;
  • Acknowledge receipt of the public’s request within 14 days;
  • Answer the public’s questions, concerns and comments within 60 days and give the public 21 days to respond.

Once these time periods are past, Industry Canada grants the company permission to erect the cell tower.

Is this process democratic?

The process is dubious for the following reasons:

  • The telecommunications company is not obliged to respect the regulations set forth by local authorities in charge of land use; in other words, the company can determine the tower’s height and location, with no consideration for either construction or zoning regulations or any other regulations or requirements that citizens or other companies must abide by. Several telecommunications towers have been built despite a formal municipal ban;
  • In rural areas, a radius equal to three times the height of the tower often means that the only person to be notified is the owner of the land on which the tower will be installed, or that the company will have signed a lease with the owner beforehand in return for a monthly rent of thousands of dollars;
  • The tower’s visibility, as well as the range of the antennas mounted on it, will cover a radius of several kilometres, involving many people who will never receive compensation and who cannot object;
  • Most people will not see the notice in the paper, either because it does not really stand out or because people don’t read that paper;
  • The questions, concerns and comments from people who do contact the telecommunications company will for the most part be considered unreasonable and irrelevant, particularly if they relate to property integrity and health issues.

And yet, telecommunications companies are not public service corporations. They are private firms whose objective is to make profits, while the cell towers they build could possibly have a negative impact on the value of the properties from which they will be visible. The microwaves transmitted by the antennas will produce electromagnetic fields and radiofrequencies that could create discomfort and even health problems for people, for which these companies will be unwilling to accept any responsibility or grant any compensation.

It is unacceptable that these companies enjoy privileges without assuming any responsibility. A democratic approach would imply:

  • That all citizens affected by the impact of these towers and antennas be able to fully participate in the selection process of the communications solution;
  • That the company be obliged to choose the telecommunications solution that represents the lowest impact on the environment and on health (cable, fibre optics, etc.);
  • That all means be put in place to ensure the greatest number of citizens possible receive notice of the project (all citizens must be notified in writing directly at home within an acceptable timeframe);
  • That the planned location of the telecommunications installation be identified using signage that is visible from the public road;
  • That local authorities’ regulations be respected.

In order to adopt the best communications solution, it is vital that all costs be taken into consideration; not only those the company will assume to erect the cell tower and install antennas, but also those associated with impacts on the environment, property values and, above all, the health of citizens.

The land on which the telecommunications systems would be installed should belong to the public either through expropriation or easement, with the corresponding rent benefitting the local community’s general population.