The dangers of overcrowding telecoms base stations within single areas 

Telecoms base station

Telecoms base station

By Abiodun Awosusi

Telecommunications Base Transceiver Stations (BTS) popularly called base stations are the backbone of modern communication networks. Base stations and other telecoms infrastructure enable efficient transmission of voice, data and video communication, as well as other value-adding services across wide coverage areas by telecoms companies. BTS ensures signal quality, and supports a wide range of services and technologies that are essential for our daily lives and the functioning of businesses and societies.

Given the importance of base stations and the need to ensure they work optimally at all times, it is an established industry practice for network operators to offload this critical part of the business to telecoms infrastructure operators and managers of shared facilities because of their expertise in that area.

In Nigeria, telecom infrascos such as IHS Towers and Helios Towers are the leading BTS service providers/managers of shared telecoms assets. They operate, manage and maintain base stations for Major Network Operators (MNOs) including MTN, Airtel, Glo and 9mobile, as well as other service providers such as Internet Service Providers, financial institutions, military, intelligence and security institutions, amongst others.

It is pertinent to state however, that due to fear of potential health and environmental risks that people have of telecoms masts, telecoms operators and infrastructure companies are by law mandated to ensure base stations are responsibly located only within approved safe areas, and in strict compliance with the parameters set by relevant regulatory authorities in Nigeria.

This is why the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) have set the guidelines for the location of base stations by telecoms operators and infrastructure companies.

The NCC’s technical code and specifications for telecommunications equipment and facilities, stipulate among others, that “operators shall take all reasonable steps to protect the safety of persons, property and the environment in connection with the installation of their facilities.”

Specifically, NCC Guidelines on Technical Specifications for the Installation of Telecommunications Masts and Towers of 9th of April 2009 clearly mandates telecoms services providers and infrastructure companies to ensure health and environmental safety, and sound engineering practices at BTS sites.

Section 9(9)(c) of the NCC Guidelines provides that the distance for the setback of towers shall be five metres from any demised property excluding the fence. The guidelines also provide that all generators within a base station must be sited five metres away from all demised properties excluding the fence. Also, all towers sited within residential areas must conform to the setback stipulated in the guidelines to mitigate the effect of heat, smoke and noise pollution arising from generating sets.“

NESREA, a federal agency responsible for the enforcement of environmental standards, rules, regulations and policies also prescribed the guidelines for telecoms and broadcast operators with regards to environmental safety-compliance of facilities.

The NESREA (Standards for Telecommunications and Broadcast Facilities), Regulations 2011, among others, in Section 5(4)(1)(b) stipulate that “all new facilities shall have a minimum setback of 10 metres from the perimeter wall of any premises to the base of the mast/tower.”

It’s a global industry best practice that one base station operates within a certain range of safety parameters within a given location for the safety of the environment and the people within that location. Hence, the media reports that U.S. telecoms infrasco, American Tower Corporation (ATC) is planning to set up new base stations very close to the existing BTS sites across the country should be a concern to stakeholders, including the government agencies especially the NCC, NESREA, and in fact the Ministry of Health.

If the reports were true, the dangers of building new telecom base stations at close proximity to the existing base stations within the same area can pose several dangers and challenges. These include an increase in noise levels. By law, each BTS is expected to operate under an upper limit of noise, within a given location. Situating more BTS within that location aggregates the contribution of noise by BTS in that location, thus exceeding the upper limits of permissible noise leading to noise pollution.

There is a danger of reduction in air quality. Each BTS operates within boundaries of permissible release of gas waste into the environment; having more than one BTS within the location will decrease the air quality due to increase in gas pollutants. Also, with the addition of more than one BTS in a given location, the pH of the soil within the location will be altered.

Multiple base stations can also have emotional impact and exacerbate health concerns people have for telecom masts. There is increasing fear and concerns about potential health risks associated with the electromagnetic radiation emitted by base stations; having more BTS in the same locations could aggravate the concerns even though scientific and medical research has not conclusively proven harmful effects of telecom base stations.

Proximity of multiple base stations can lead to electromagnetic interference, which may affect the quality and reliability of wireless communication signals. Interference can result in dropped calls, slower data speeds, and reduced network performance. Signal congestion could also occur on telecom networks as multiple base stations located close to one another will result in the BTS competing for the same frequency bands, leading to signal congestion. This can result in network congestion during peak usage times, making it difficult for users to connect and use their mobile devices effectively.

Concentrating base stations in a single area can make the network more vulnerable to natural disasters, accidents, or equipment failures, thereby resulting in redundancy and resilience. On the other hand, spreading base stations out can enhance network redundancy and resilience. In terms of cost-efficiency, operating and maintaining multiple base stations in close proximity in areas where BTS sites are already sufficiently provided can be costly. It will be more efficient to strategically deploy base stations to cover larger areas effectively, especially far-flung hinterlands that require more telecom infrastructure.

Clustering base stations in one area can lead to visual clutter and impact the aesthetics of the environment. This can be a concern for communities and local authorities, especially in scenic or residential areas. Governments and communities may face space constraints for the provision of basic amenities such as schools, healthcare and recreation/social facilities as a result of BTS congestion.

It’s undisputed that telecoms infrastructure, including base stations, are stimulants of economic growth by enabling effective and efficient communications, innovation and provision of tailored services. Telecom services empower the people and businesses to function efficiently.

This is why the telecoms sector is one of the strategic non-oil sectors, which the Federal Government is targeting to boost real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth, job creation and drive innovation. However, over-concentration of base stations within the same areas that are already sufficiently covered by other telecoms infrastructure companies would certainly be counter-productive.

Environmental protection is a serious matter under the Nigerian Constitution. Section 20 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) states inter alia… “states shall protect and improve the environment and safeguard the water, air, forest and wildlife of Nigeria.” In the past, a leading telecoms operator had some of its base stations sealed by NESREA for being on 1.2 metres setback in clear violation of the 5 metres/12 meters stipulated by the NCC and NESREA guidelines respectively.

So, in light of the extant laws and subsisting fear of potential health and environmental risks associated with base stations, though not yet scientifically and medically established, it would have served the country better if operators can focus on deploying more infrastructure and expand services in the underserved and unserved rural communities, rather than congest the already BTS locations.

President Bola Tinubu, state governors, the Minister of Communications, Innovation and Digital Economy, Dr. Bosun Tijani, the Federal Executive Council, the National Assembly, NCC, NESREA, Ministry of Health, Public Health experts and other stakeholders should please take note.

-Abiodun Awosusi, A Telecom & ICT Expert writes from Lagos.

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